THE senior police officer leading a criminal probe into 456 deaths at Gosport War Memorial service has been replaced as he is retiring for ‘personal reasons’.
Assistant chief constable Nick Downing will be replaced by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Jerome from the Metropolitan Police Service.
Families have told The News of their fear this could leave the probe, into opioid deaths at the hospital between 1987-2001, at risk of stalling. It was announced in April.
Kent police’s chief constable said ‘the matter in relation to ACC Downing in no way relates to the Gosport War Memorial Hospital or the current investigation’. It is not clear why he is retiring.
A bishop-led report in June last year found a ‘disregard for human life’ at the Gosport hospital during the period. There were 456 patients who had their lives shortened, and ‘probably’ another 200.
Hampshire police said it cannot comment other than to ‘welcome the fact that DAC Neil Jerome has been appointed to lead this high-profile investigation’ and that ‘the change of lead officer is in no way related’ to what happened at Gosport War Memorial Hospital.
A spokeswoman for Kent police said Mr Downing is due to retire ‘for personal reasons from policing’ next month having finished 30 years’ service.
Jim Lyness, 66, from Lee-on-the-Solent, was disappointed at the news but happy someone else has been appointed. His great-aunt Elsie Devine died aged 88 at the hospital.
Speaking to The News, Mr Lyness said: ‘I’m sad but glad really.
‘I’m sad that an opportunity was lost to really take this prosecution and finish it off, and that they’ve found after all the moaning and groaning it has to either stall or start again.
‘I’m glad, hopeful, but I still don’t trust the authorities to bring justice for those who are responsible for the deaths at Gosport.
‘I can only welcome the appointment of the new high ranking officer but with some reservations.’
At a press conference when the criminal probe was announced, Mr Downing said a nine-month phase will see officers interviewing around 270 family members, asking them about their relatives’ final days.
The Eastern Police Area is running the new probe after three probes by Hampshire police were criticised.
Gillian Mackenzie, 85, whose 91-year-old mother Gladys Richards died in the hospital in 1998 after being moved from Haslar Hospital, was the first to go to police with concerns.
She told The News: ‘I find it extraordinary that they should put him in the position that he then retires and get somebody else.
‘It means we’ve got to build up trust in yet another police officer.
'I find it odd that they appointed Mr Downing. I think they still didn't think there was a case to answer. They appointed Mr Downing thinking if they change course it didn't matter.'
In a letter to families, Kent police chief constable Alan Pughsley said: ‘Whilst the matter in relation to ACC Downing in no way relates to the Gosport War Memorial Hospital or the current investigation, chief constable Pinkney and I are in agreement that it is now appropriate to appoint new, long-term leadership on this Investigation.
‘For personal reasons ACC Downing has chosen to retire.
‘Given the time imperative, there has been engagement with national colleagues to seek an independent recommendation for a new Gold Commander with no links to Hampshire Constabulary.
‘As a result of this, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Jerome will be introduced to you at the next forum on July 16. His rank is equivalent to a deputy chief constable and he has the experience to deliver an investigation of the scale and importance of Gosport.’
Mr Pughsley’s letter added: ‘When (Hampshire) chief constable (Olivia) Pinkney first spoke with you after the panel she said that momentum is crucial and we are both determined to see this commitment through.’
Dr Jane Barton was the GP responsible for the practice of prescribing which prevailed on the wards.
Following Bishop James Jones' Gosport Independent Panel report Dr Barton said she was working in an over-stretched section of the NHS and was doing the best for her patients.
Families are running a petition calling for a change in the law to require relatives' consent before end-of-life drugs are administered.