A neurologist at the centre of Northern Ireland’s largest patient recall will not give evidence to a public inquiry examining issues around his work.
It was been concluded that Dr Michael Watt is medically unfit to appear before the inquiry panel, its chairman Brett Lockhart QC said.
The Independent Neurology Inquiry was established in 2018 after thousands of Dr Watt’s patients were recalled amid concerns about misdiagnosis of brain conditions.
It was given the status of a public inquiry in 2020.
In an update on the work of the inquiry, Mr Lockhart confirmed that the neurologist would not be giving evidence.
A witness summons was served on Dr Watt in March 2021 but his legal representatives responded with a medical report indicating his unfitness to appear.
The inquiry then offered clarification as to what would be required of the doctor in giving evidence and asked that a further medical opinion be sought in light of that updated information.
A further medical report reached the same conclusion. Mr Lockhart then sought an independent assessment of Dr Watt’s condition and that report also concluded that he was unfit to give evidence.
“The inquiry panel has carefully considered specialist reports provided to them addressing Dr Watt’s unfitness to give evidence,” Mr Lockhart said.
“The inquiry also obtained an independent specialist’s opinion who agreed that Dr Watt is not fit to give evidence.
“I believe that we have explored all reasonable options to facilitate Dr Watt’s involvement. We have, however, concluded that Dr Watt’s unfitness to give evidence does not significantly impact upon the inquiry’s ability to address its terms of reference, which has a focus on governance.”
He added: “We understand that this may distress or disappoint some patients and their families given the recalls that have taken place. The fact that this inquiry cannot hear from Dr Watt does not prevent us from answering the questions we were asked to consider.
“It is important to note that the inquiry is not responsible for making decisions in relation to the clinical practice of Dr Watt, which is the responsibility of the General Medical Council.”
The last scheduled oral hearing of the inquiry took place last month. To date, it has met on 153 occasions, received evidence on 212 occasions from witnesses and considered 137,000 pages of evidence.
Mr Lockhart said the inquiry remained willing to hear from patients or family members through a questionnaire available on the inquiry’s website. The deadline for returning the questionnaires was August 26.
“We will then consider any additional submissions,” he said.
“We will allow anyone potentially criticised in the report the opportunity to respond to the issues raised before finalising the report and delivering it to the Minister of Health.”
In April, Health Minister Robin Swann issued an unreserved public apology after telling the Stormont Assembly that around a fifth of high risk patients seen by Dr Watt had received an “insecure diagnosis”.
The announcement came as the Dr Watt’s former employers at the Belfast Health Trust triggered a third recall, involving 209 former patients of the retired neurologist.