Category Archives: Beauty & Care

Scientists aim to stop the devastation of Zika-like pandemics

For several months, health workers have been battling to contain an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A total of 60 cases, 28 of them fatal, have been reported around the town of Mbandaka, though authorities say the outbreak is now under control.

Politicians, nevertheless, remain nervous. Thousands died in the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014 after the virus – which probably spread from infected animals, such as fruit bats – triggered widespread cases of severe, sometimes fatal, internal bleeding.

Ebola is one of a series of previously unknown diseases – others include Sars and Zika – that have recently appeared without warning and devastated communities, having jumped from animal populations to humans. HIV spread to humans from chimpanzees, for example.

And in future new killers will emerge as humans spread into previously inaccessible areas and come into contact with infected creatures, causing deadly new pandemics.

Chimpanzee


Chimpanzees have been linked to transmission of the Aids virus to humans. Photograph: David Greyo/Barcroft Media

Now a group of scientists believe they have solution. They have launched a remarkable new project which aims to spot the next pandemic virus. The international initiative is known as the Global Virome Project (GVP) and it aims to pinpoint the causes of fatal new diseases before they start to make people ill.

Advocates of the project say they will achieve this remarkable task by genetically characterising viruses found in wild animals – particularly those that have been major sources of viruses deadly to humans. By pinpointing viruses at greatest risk of infecting humans,, counter-measures, such as vaccines can be prepared.

“We are about to start initial work in China and Thailand by studying bats, rodents, primates and water birds there,” said Peter Daszak, of the EcoHealth Alliance, one of the main supporters of the project. “We aim to find out as yet unknown viruses that could infect men and women and so pinpoint ways to protect them.”

A pilot study, known as Predict and backed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has already pinpointed more than a thousand viruses in animals that have the potential to infect humans. The GVP will aim to boost that number significantly. Indeed, if it is to succeed fully in its task it will have improved on these figures by several orders of magnitude for it is thought there are around 1.6 million yet-to-be-discovered viral species living in animals. Finding out which could infect humans is a tremendous challenge that could take decades, though in the short term GVP scientists believe they could at least be able to identify them.

Much of that work will have to be done in the field. Sending samples back and forth from central facilities will not work on this scale. The GVP will therefore requirerequire extraordinary organisation – and a fair amount of funding – about $ 1.2bn. However, this represents value for money, Daszak insisted. Three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases are now spread to humans from other animals. Action to block these transmissions is urgently needed.

“The project is currently in an incubation phase and while its price may seem high, it is a fraction of the cost of just one major outbreak, like the West African Ebola epidemic,” said Daszak. Governments including those of the US, China and Thailand have given support and the aim is to raise further funds over coming years, he added.

Not every expert agrees with the project’s approach, however. In a paper in Nature this month, one group of researchers, led by Professor Edward Holmes, of Sydney University, claimed its hopes of carrying out meaningful prediction of new pandemics were misguided.

“There aren’t enough data on virus outbreaks for researchers to be able to accurately predict the next outbreak strain. Nor is there good enough understanding of what drives viruses to jump hosts, making it difficult to construct predictive models,” he said.

Holmes and his colleagues argue that even it were possible to identify which viruses are likely to emerge in humans, thousands of candidates could end up being identified, each with a low probability of causing an outbreak. Instead they propose that the screening of people who are already exhibiting symptoms of a disease would make a better avenue of approach to the problem – the best time to tackle an emerging disease.

“Once an emerging outbreak virus has been identified it needs to be analysed quickly to establish what type it is, which molecular mechanisms … enable it to jump between individuals … and how it affects those infected,” they state.

However, Eddy Rubin, chief scientist at the biotechnology company Metabiota, which is supporting the GVP, argued that only responding to a disease after an outbreak was no longer acceptable. “We make preparations against hurricanes and earthquakes. We need to do the same with diseases. We need to start to collect data and make predictions about where new outbreaks might occur,” he told the Observer.

“If we have information about tens of thousands of these viruses then we can use artificial intelligence to look for common features and so could make counter-measures and vaccines against whole categories of viruses. This could transform the way we deal with infectious diseases and viral outbreaks.”

Children face mental health epidemic, say teachers

Britain’s schoolchildren are suffering from an epidemic of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, yet barely half get the NHS treatment they need, teachers say.

Almost four in five (78%) teachers have seen a pupil struggle with a mental health problem in the past year, with one in seven (14%) cases involving suicidal thoughts or behaviour.

Anxiety is the most common problem, with two-thirds of the 300 teachers surveyed by the mental health charity stem4 having come across a young person at their school dealing with the condition in the past year. Significant minorities of teachers have also encountered at least one pupil with depression (45%), an eating disorder such as anorexia (30%), self-harming (28%) or addiction (10%).

However, many of the teachers – who work in primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK – say pupils find it hard to get help from the NHS child and adolescent mental health (CAMHS) services. More than a third (36%) of participants said they had feared that a young person might come to harm while waiting to receive treatment.

Less than half (46%) said students were able to access the CAMHS care they needed to help recover, and only 19% said those children receiving treatment were getting the help they needed. One in five (22%) said pupils had to wait at least five months to start treatment. CAMHS services are struggling to cope with the fast-growing demand for support from troubled under-18s. Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause, the chief executive of stem4, will unveil the full findings at a conference in London this week for education professionals concerned at the rise in the number of pupils struggling with mental ill-health. Four in 10 (40%) teachers believe the need for care has grown in the past year while 52% believe family difficulties are contributing to students’ troubles, and 41% identified exam stress and bullying as triggers.

“Schools face huge challenges in dealing with mental health issues in their students, and teachers are on the front line. They witness first-hand the devastating impact of pressures such as exam anxiety, bullying, and family problems. The consequences of these problems are serious, often life-threatening, and teachers are desperate to help,” said Krause.

“Yet at a time when the need for preventative, early intervention and specialist services are soaring, schools are finding it increasingly difficult to provide the help their pupils need. There’s an urgent need for better support mechanisms in schools, as well as decent funding for the range of mental health services children and young people need.”

Ministers unveiled a long-awaited green paper on reducing mental ill-health among children and young people last year. But its proposals, which hand schools a key role, were recently criticised by MPs on the Commons health and social care and education select committees as lacking ambition.

A government spokesperson said: “Making sure children and young people have the right support when they need it is vital. That’s why we are giving an extra £300m to provide more support linked to schools, including new support teams to provide quicker support to children.

“We recognise there is more to do – we’ve extended our schools and NHS link pilot to deliver training in 20 more areas of the country this year to improve links between 1,200 schools and their local specialist mental health services.”

Children face mental health epidemic, say teachers

Britain’s schoolchildren are suffering from an epidemic of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, yet barely half get the NHS treatment they need, teachers say.

Almost four in five (78%) teachers have seen a pupil struggle with a mental health problem in the past year, with one in seven (14%) cases involving suicidal thoughts or behaviour.

Anxiety is the most common problem, with two-thirds of the 300 teachers surveyed by the mental health charity stem4 having come across a young person at their school dealing with the condition in the past year. Significant minorities of teachers have also encountered at least one pupil with depression (45%), an eating disorder such as anorexia (30%), self-harming (28%) or addiction (10%).

However, many of the teachers – who work in primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK – say pupils find it hard to get help from the NHS child and adolescent mental health (CAMHS) services. More than a third (36%) of participants said they had feared that a young person might come to harm while waiting to receive treatment.

Less than half (46%) said students were able to access the CAMHS care they needed to help recover, and only 19% said those children receiving treatment were getting the help they needed. One in five (22%) said pupils had to wait at least five months to start treatment. CAMHS services are struggling to cope with the fast-growing demand for support from troubled under-18s. Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause, the chief executive of stem4, will unveil the full findings at a conference in London this week for education professionals concerned at the rise in the number of pupils struggling with mental ill-health. Four in 10 (40%) teachers believe the need for care has grown in the past year while 52% believe family difficulties are contributing to students’ troubles, and 41% identified exam stress and bullying as triggers.

“Schools face huge challenges in dealing with mental health issues in their students, and teachers are on the front line. They witness first-hand the devastating impact of pressures such as exam anxiety, bullying, and family problems. The consequences of these problems are serious, often life-threatening, and teachers are desperate to help,” said Krause.

“Yet at a time when the need for preventative, early intervention and specialist services are soaring, schools are finding it increasingly difficult to provide the help their pupils need. There’s an urgent need for better support mechanisms in schools, as well as decent funding for the range of mental health services children and young people need.”

Ministers unveiled a long-awaited green paper on reducing mental ill-health among children and young people last year. But its proposals, which hand schools a key role, were recently criticised by MPs on the Commons health and social care and education select committees as lacking ambition.

A government spokesperson said: “Making sure children and young people have the right support when they need it is vital. That’s why we are giving an extra £300m to provide more support linked to schools, including new support teams to provide quicker support to children.

“We recognise there is more to do – we’ve extended our schools and NHS link pilot to deliver training in 20 more areas of the country this year to improve links between 1,200 schools and their local specialist mental health services.”

New NHS investigative body to examine suspicious deaths

A new body being set up to investigate suspicious deaths in the NHS will be so secretive it will block families from finding out the truth of what happened to their relatives, campaigners have said.

The government says the Health Service Safety Investigations Body is designed to provide a “safe space” for doctors, nurses and other NHS staff to be open about what went wrong when a patient died or was harmed unnecessarily. The proposal for setting up the body is currently with a joint committee in the Houses of Parliament.

Earlier this week the report into Gosport hospital, which found more than 450 older people had died after being given life-shortening opioids, found that many who worked in the hospital had tried to raise the alarm but their complaints had not gone any further.

Campaigners have expressed concern that the investigative body will be prohibited from disclosing any information, even when it is neither personal nor damaging. It will be banned from revealing a hospital’s staffing or financial data that might have contributed to an untimely death.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said all that relatives, patients, campaigners and even MPs would see was the final report.

“It will introduce a new layer of secrecy into the NHS over and above anything that exists at the moment, which the investigators themselves will have no power to overcome,” he said.

“If it is not published in the report, they will have no power to disclose it. We are going to see the shutters come down around the whole system of accident investigation in a way that is very unhealthy and it is going to damage people’s confidence in the system.”

The Department of Health is modelling the body on the Department for Transport’s Air Accident Investigations Branch. Frankel pointed out that the last passenger death on a commercial airline in the UK was in 1999. There are an estimated 12,000 avoidable deaths and 24,000 serious incidents in the NHS each year.

“The whole country is going to be affected by this. It will lead to suspicions of cover-ups and that suspicion will probably be justified,” he said.

Families of older people who died in Gosport War Memorial hospital in the 1990s battled for 20 years to persuade officials to believe them and find out what happened. The report, from an expert panel that examined all the documentation it could access, concluded that 456 people died after being given life-shortening doses of opioid drugs on the wards over a period of 12 years.

Jeremy Hunt said the scandal exposed the “blame culture” in the NHS. “The basic problem is that if you are a doctor or a nurse and you see something going wrong … the thing that families want, if they are bereaved or have a tragedy, is to know that the NHS isn’t going to make that mistake again,” the health secretary said on BBC radio.

“We make it much too hard for doctors and nurses to do that. They are worried that there will be litigation, they will go up in front of the GMC [General Medical Council], or the NMC [Nursing and Midwifery Council].”

Hunt added: “In some places they are worried they might get fired. So we do have to tackle that blame culture and turn that into a learning culture.”

Frankel, however, said the secrecy of the investigatory body would not change the reluctance of doctors and nurses to admit fault, because the draft bill allows it to pass information to the police, the GMC or the NMC, which can end doctors’ and nurses’ careers.

Writing in the Guardian, Peter Walsh, the chief executive of Action Against Medical Accidents, which supported the Gosport families in trying to get inquests held, criticised the new body.

“It is hugely controversial, as it would introduce something it calls a ‘safe space’ in patient safety investigations. This is defined in the bill as a prohibition on sharing any information obtained in an investigation,” writes Walsh.

That prohibition, he says, means even a patient who was the victim of an incident, would not be able to see the information. “Nor could they use any facts in the final published report to seek justice through the civil courts or tribunals. There doesn’t seem much candour in that.

“This measure, if it is allowed to go ahead, would destroy any trust that patients or families could have in NHS investigations, and lead to a more adversarial culture where people turn to legal action and seek disciplinary action straight away.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving patient safety in the NHS and supporting staff to speak up is a vital part of that. It’s clear from incident investigations in aviation and rail sectors that staff are more encouraged to speak up about concerns in a safe space.”

New NHS investigative body to examine suspicious deaths

A new body being set up to investigate suspicious deaths in the NHS will be so secretive it will block families from finding out the truth of what happened to their relatives, campaigners have said.

The government says the Health Service Safety Investigations Body is designed to provide a “safe space” for doctors, nurses and other NHS staff to be open about what went wrong when a patient died or was harmed unnecessarily. The proposal for setting up the body is currently with a joint committee in the Houses of Parliament.

Earlier this week the report into Gosport hospital, which found more than 450 older people had died after being given life-shortening opioids, found that many who worked in the hospital had tried to raise the alarm but their complaints had not gone any further.

Campaigners have expressed concern that the investigative body will be prohibited from disclosing any information, even when it is neither personal nor damaging. It will be banned from revealing a hospital’s staffing or financial data that might have contributed to an untimely death.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said all that relatives, patients, campaigners and even MPs would see was the final report.

“It will introduce a new layer of secrecy into the NHS over and above anything that exists at the moment, which the investigators themselves will have no power to overcome,” he said.

“If it is not published in the report, they will have no power to disclose it. We are going to see the shutters come down around the whole system of accident investigation in a way that is very unhealthy and it is going to damage people’s confidence in the system.”

The Department of Health is modelling the body on the Department for Transport’s Air Accident Investigations Branch. Frankel pointed out that the last passenger death on a commercial airline in the UK was in 1999. There are an estimated 12,000 avoidable deaths and 24,000 serious incidents in the NHS each year.

“The whole country is going to be affected by this. It will lead to suspicions of cover-ups and that suspicion will probably be justified,” he said.

Families of older people who died in Gosport War Memorial hospital in the 1990s battled for 20 years to persuade officials to believe them and find out what happened. The report, from an expert panel that examined all the documentation it could access, concluded that 456 people died after being given life-shortening doses of opioid drugs on the wards over a period of 12 years.

Jeremy Hunt said the scandal exposed the “blame culture” in the NHS. “The basic problem is that if you are a doctor or a nurse and you see something going wrong … the thing that families want, if they are bereaved or have a tragedy, is to know that the NHS isn’t going to make that mistake again,” the health secretary said on BBC radio.

“We make it much too hard for doctors and nurses to do that. They are worried that there will be litigation, they will go up in front of the GMC [General Medical Council], or the NMC [Nursing and Midwifery Council].”

Hunt added: “In some places they are worried they might get fired. So we do have to tackle that blame culture and turn that into a learning culture.”

Frankel, however, said the secrecy of the investigatory body would not change the reluctance of doctors and nurses to admit fault, because the draft bill allows it to pass information to the police, the GMC or the NMC, which can end doctors’ and nurses’ careers.

Writing in the Guardian, Peter Walsh, the chief executive of Action Against Medical Accidents, which supported the Gosport families in trying to get inquests held, criticised the new body.

“It is hugely controversial, as it would introduce something it calls a ‘safe space’ in patient safety investigations. This is defined in the bill as a prohibition on sharing any information obtained in an investigation,” writes Walsh.

That prohibition, he says, means even a patient who was the victim of an incident, would not be able to see the information. “Nor could they use any facts in the final published report to seek justice through the civil courts or tribunals. There doesn’t seem much candour in that.

“This measure, if it is allowed to go ahead, would destroy any trust that patients or families could have in NHS investigations, and lead to a more adversarial culture where people turn to legal action and seek disciplinary action straight away.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving patient safety in the NHS and supporting staff to speak up is a vital part of that. It’s clear from incident investigations in aviation and rail sectors that staff are more encouraged to speak up about concerns in a safe space.”

New NHS investigative body to examine suspicious deaths

A new body being set up to investigate suspicious deaths in the NHS will be so secretive it will block families from finding out the truth of what happened to their relatives, campaigners have said.

The government says the Health Service Safety Investigations Body is designed to provide a “safe space” for doctors, nurses and other NHS staff to be open about what went wrong when a patient died or was harmed unnecessarily. The proposal for setting up the body is currently with a joint committee in the Houses of Parliament.

Earlier this week the report into Gosport hospital, which found more than 450 older people had died after being given life-shortening opioids, found that many who worked in the hospital had tried to raise the alarm but their complaints had not gone any further.

Campaigners have expressed concern that the investigative body will be prohibited from disclosing any information, even when it is neither personal nor damaging. It will be banned from revealing a hospital’s staffing or financial data that might have contributed to an untimely death.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said all that relatives, patients, campaigners and even MPs would see was the final report.

“It will introduce a new layer of secrecy into the NHS over and above anything that exists at the moment, which the investigators themselves will have no power to overcome,” he said.

“If it is not published in the report, they will have no power to disclose it. We are going to see the shutters come down around the whole system of accident investigation in a way that is very unhealthy and it is going to damage people’s confidence in the system.”

The Department of Health is modelling the body on the Department for Transport’s Air Accident Investigations Branch. Frankel pointed out that the last passenger death on a commercial airline in the UK was in 1999. There are an estimated 12,000 avoidable deaths and 24,000 serious incidents in the NHS each year.

“The whole country is going to be affected by this. It will lead to suspicions of cover-ups and that suspicion will probably be justified,” he said.

Families of older people who died in Gosport War Memorial hospital in the 1990s battled for 20 years to persuade officials to believe them and find out what happened. The report, from an expert panel that examined all the documentation it could access, concluded that 456 people died after being given life-shortening doses of opioid drugs on the wards over a period of 12 years.

Jeremy Hunt said the scandal exposed the “blame culture” in the NHS. “The basic problem is that if you are a doctor or a nurse and you see something going wrong … the thing that families want, if they are bereaved or have a tragedy, is to know that the NHS isn’t going to make that mistake again,” the health secretary said on BBC radio.

“We make it much too hard for doctors and nurses to do that. They are worried that there will be litigation, they will go up in front of the GMC [General Medical Council], or the NMC [Nursing and Midwifery Council].”

Hunt added: “In some places they are worried they might get fired. So we do have to tackle that blame culture and turn that into a learning culture.”

Frankel, however, said the secrecy of the investigatory body would not change the reluctance of doctors and nurses to admit fault, because the draft bill allows it to pass information to the police, the GMC or the NMC, which can end doctors’ and nurses’ careers.

Writing in the Guardian, Peter Walsh, the chief executive of Action Against Medical Accidents, which supported the Gosport families in trying to get inquests held, criticised the new body.

“It is hugely controversial, as it would introduce something it calls a ‘safe space’ in patient safety investigations. This is defined in the bill as a prohibition on sharing any information obtained in an investigation,” writes Walsh.

That prohibition, he says, means even a patient who was the victim of an incident, would not be able to see the information. “Nor could they use any facts in the final published report to seek justice through the civil courts or tribunals. There doesn’t seem much candour in that.

“This measure, if it is allowed to go ahead, would destroy any trust that patients or families could have in NHS investigations, and lead to a more adversarial culture where people turn to legal action and seek disciplinary action straight away.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving patient safety in the NHS and supporting staff to speak up is a vital part of that. It’s clear from incident investigations in aviation and rail sectors that staff are more encouraged to speak up about concerns in a safe space.”

Kathy Baker obituary

A Samaritans volunteer for nearly 50 years, Kathy Baker, who has died aged 70, gave so much of her time to so many. But her enduring legacy will be the groundbreaking Samaritans Listener scheme which she founded in HMP Swansea in 1991 after a 15-year-old boy hanged himself in the prison.

The Listener scheme, whereby prisoners are trained to provide a patient and compassionate ear for fellow prisoners in distress, is one of the most innovative ventures introduced to the UK prison system and has saved countless lives. The governor of Swansea at the time, Jim Heyes, was a man of foresight who had been deeply affected by the death of the youngster and welcomed the Samaritans into his prison. He worked closely with Kathy to establish the Listeners as an integral part of his prison regime. Between them they created “a living organism”, as one governor described it, which has spread so that now every prison in the country is obliged to have such a scheme and to have a relationship with the Samaritans as part of their key performance indicators.

I first met Kathy when I was an early-years life prisoner. As deputy chair of Samaritans, she visited HMP Nottingham in 1992 to meet the new group of Listeners, of whom I was one. We were nervous, but she put us at ease and persuaded us that our voluntary roles would save lives. Fourteen years later and two years after my release, I met her again when I was asked to present her with the 2006 Perrie award, granted each year to the person who has done most to promote an understanding of the work of the Prison Service in England and Wales.

In 1994 Kathy was appointed MBE for services to prisoner welfare. As well as being a part of the service’s Safer Custody Group from the early 1990s, she was the suicide prevention adviser to high-security prisons from 2001 until 2007.

Born in Northwood, Middlesex, Kathy was the daughter of Frances (nee Weir) and Allan Biggar, who met during the second world war – her mother was in the Waaf, her father in the RAF. After the war, Frances became a full-time mother to Kathy and her sister Janet. Allan worked in the family publishing business, before going into journalism, writing for the Sporting Life and the annual Bloodstock Review.

Kathy was educated at Northwood college for girls. At 18 she went on an exchange trip to live with a French family for six months and during this time developed an interest in photography. On her return, she enrolled at Ealing School of Art, studying and qualifying in the subject and planning a photography career, which took her into the research department of Unilever. Soon afterwards she joined her local branch of Samaritans and became a stalwart of the Hillingdon branch throughout the 70s and 80s.

In the mid-70s Kathy was a co-founder of the festival branch – outreach tents at music festivals such as Knebworth and Reading – she and her colleagues arguing that the Samaritans were then seen as “too white and too middle-class” and that they needed to reach out to more diverse and younger people. Her colleague Phil Howes, another festival branch founder, remembered that “Kathy was like a mother hen and we were the chicks all running after her.”

Her Samaritan work at Hillingdon brought Kathy into contact with many prison leavers suffering mental health problems and other vulnerabilities and it was this experience that made her decide to change careers and join the Probation Service at Feltham in 1973. Several years later she became the prison probation officer in HMP Wandsworth. There she recruited prisoners who were coping well to “keep an eye” on those who were obviously not, and this was the starting point of what eventually became the Listeners. In 1991 Kathy was given the pivotal role of liaising between the Prison Service and Samaritans, travelling around the country persuading prison governors of the merits of the scheme.

Kathy met her future husband, Bill Baker, in the early 80s when he was a computer programmer for ICI and a fellow Samaritan. Bill also later became a probation officer and the couple were married in 2001, bringing Kathy three stepchildren. Following their retirement in 2007, Kathy and Bill decided to go on a world sightseeing trip which was cut short when Bill was taken ill and then diagnosed with cancer. Kathy nursed Bill until his death in 2009.

Kathy, now a Samaritan at the central London branch, kept up her involvement with the Listener scheme and other initiatives to reduce suicide in prison, even after she, too, was diagnosed with cancer early in 2016.

In 2017, the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP) undertook a collaboration with the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, Inside Time, National Prison Radio and Samaritans to reach out to those in custody, seeking their ideas for keeping people safe in prison. They received more than 200 detailed letters from prisoners, one of whom wrote: “I’m just one of many who have been saved by the Listeners.” Kathy responded personally to every letter.

“Through her professionalism and humanity, Kathy not only saved countless lives, she enabled people in prison to see that they too could save lives and help fellow prisoners in extreme distress,’” said Juliet Lyon, chair of the IAP.

“She had presence,” said Berny, a former long-term prisoner and Listener who after her release became a close friend of Kathy. “Wherever Kathy was, there was a sense of incredible kindness, love and acceptance.”

Kathy rarely spoke about why she did what she did, although she once said: “Enabling people to talk about how they feel is a real gift.” People from all walks of life, and in particular people in custody, will be eternally grateful that she shared that gift.

She is survived by her sister and her mother.

Kathy Mabel Baker, probation officer and Samaritan, born 10 June 1947; died 7 June 2018

Kathy Baker obituary

A Samaritans volunteer for nearly 50 years, Kathy Baker, who has died aged 70, gave so much of her time to so many. But her enduring legacy will be the groundbreaking Samaritans Listener scheme which she founded in HMP Swansea in 1991 after a 15-year-old boy hanged himself in the prison.

The Listener scheme, whereby prisoners are trained to provide a patient and compassionate ear for fellow prisoners in distress, is one of the most innovative ventures introduced to the UK prison system and has saved countless lives. The governor of Swansea at the time, Jim Heyes, was a man of foresight who had been deeply affected by the death of the youngster and welcomed the Samaritans into his prison. He worked closely with Kathy to establish the Listeners as an integral part of his prison regime. Between them they created “a living organism”, as one governor described it, which has spread so that now every prison in the country is obliged to have such a scheme and to have a relationship with the Samaritans as part of their key performance indicators.

I first met Kathy when I was an early-years life prisoner. As deputy chair of Samaritans, she visited HMP Nottingham in 1992 to meet the new group of Listeners, of whom I was one. We were nervous, but she put us at ease and persuaded us that our voluntary roles would save lives. Fourteen years later and two years after my release, I met her again when I was asked to present her with the 2006 Perrie award, granted each year to the person who has done most to promote an understanding of the work of the Prison Service in England and Wales.

In 1994 Kathy was appointed MBE for services to prisoner welfare. As well as being a part of the service’s Safer Custody Group from the early 1990s, she was the suicide prevention adviser to high-security prisons from 2001 until 2007.

Born in Northwood, Middlesex, Kathy was the daughter of Frances (nee Weir) and Allan Biggar, who met during the second world war – her mother was in the Waaf, her father in the RAF. After the war, Frances became a full-time mother to Kathy and her sister Janet. Allan worked in the family publishing business, before going into journalism, writing for the Sporting Life and the annual Bloodstock Review.

Kathy was educated at Northwood college for girls. At 18 she went on an exchange trip to live with a French family for six months and during this time developed an interest in photography. On her return, she enrolled at Ealing School of Art, studying and qualifying in the subject and planning a photography career, which took her into the research department of Unilever. Soon afterwards she joined her local branch of Samaritans and became a stalwart of the Hillingdon branch throughout the 70s and 80s.

In the mid-70s Kathy was a co-founder of the festival branch – outreach tents at music festivals such as Knebworth and Reading – she and her colleagues arguing that the Samaritans were then seen as “too white and too middle-class” and that they needed to reach out to more diverse and younger people. Her colleague Phil Howes, another festival branch founder, remembered that “Kathy was like a mother hen and we were the chicks all running after her.”

Her Samaritan work at Hillingdon brought Kathy into contact with many prison leavers suffering mental health problems and other vulnerabilities and it was this experience that made her decide to change careers and join the Probation Service at Feltham in 1973. Several years later she became the prison probation officer in HMP Wandsworth. There she recruited prisoners who were coping well to “keep an eye” on those who were obviously not, and this was the starting point of what eventually became the Listeners. In 1991 Kathy was given the pivotal role of liaising between the Prison Service and Samaritans, travelling around the country persuading prison governors of the merits of the scheme.

Kathy met her future husband, Bill Baker, in the early 80s when he was a computer programmer for ICI and a fellow Samaritan. Bill also later became a probation officer and the couple were married in 2001, bringing Kathy three stepchildren. Following their retirement in 2007, Kathy and Bill decided to go on a world sightseeing trip which was cut short when Bill was taken ill and then diagnosed with cancer. Kathy nursed Bill until his death in 2009.

Kathy, now a Samaritan at the central London branch, kept up her involvement with the Listener scheme and other initiatives to reduce suicide in prison, even after she, too, was diagnosed with cancer early in 2016.

In 2017, the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP) undertook a collaboration with the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, Inside Time, National Prison Radio and Samaritans to reach out to those in custody, seeking their ideas for keeping people safe in prison. They received more than 200 detailed letters from prisoners, one of whom wrote: “I’m just one of many who have been saved by the Listeners.” Kathy responded personally to every letter.

“Through her professionalism and humanity, Kathy not only saved countless lives, she enabled people in prison to see that they too could save lives and help fellow prisoners in extreme distress,’” said Juliet Lyon, chair of the IAP.

“She had presence,” said Berny, a former long-term prisoner and Listener who after her release became a close friend of Kathy. “Wherever Kathy was, there was a sense of incredible kindness, love and acceptance.”

Kathy rarely spoke about why she did what she did, although she once said: “Enabling people to talk about how they feel is a real gift.” People from all walks of life, and in particular people in custody, will be eternally grateful that she shared that gift.

She is survived by her sister and her mother.

Kathy Mabel Baker, probation officer and Samaritan, born 10 June 1947; died 7 June 2018

Gosport hospital: more than 450 patients died due to opioid drugs policy

More than 450 patients died and possibly 200 more had their lives shortened because of a Hampshire hospital’s practice of giving life-shortening opioid drugs without medical justification, a major inquiry has found.

The independent inquiry, led by Bishop John James, found that Dr Jane Barton, the GP who ran wards at Gosport War Memorial hospital, routinely overprescribed drugs for her patients in the 1990s. Consultants were aware of her actions but did not intervene.

The report says 465 patients died because of the drugs. Possibly 200 more patients may have had their lives shortened, but their records are missing.

It says senior nurses were worried about using diamorphine – the medical name for heroin – for patients who were not in pain, administered through a syringe-driver pumping out doses that were not adjusted for the individual’s needs.

Concerns were raised as early as 1988. In 1991a staff meeting was held that was attended by a convenor from the Royal College of Nursing.

But the nurses were warned not to take their concerns further. They had, the report says, given the hospital the opportunity to rectify the over-prescribing.

“In choosing not to do so, the opportunity was lost, deaths resulted and 22 years later, it became necessary to establish this panel in order to discover the truth of what happened.”

The panel makes it clear it thinks prosecutions should follow, although it is beyond its remit to say so.

More details soon …