IRENE Watkins joined Prospect Hospice in August 2018. Just weeks before, inspectors working for the regulator, the Care Quality Commission, had visited the Wroughton hospice for the second time in seven months.

In November, the CQC dropped a bombshell report. Prospect had failed to meet the requirements of a warning notice issued in March. Improvements weren’t being made fast enough and a turnaround plan was not supported by sound evidence. At times, low staffing levels on the 16-bed inpatient ward meant it was potentially unsafe.

Six months later and newly-promoted from chief operating officer to chief executive, Ms Watkins recalled the storm of that CQC report.

It caused turmoil, she said. But the one thing that remained unaffected was compassion.

She said: “Through all that happened last year, the services continued. They continued giving expert advice.

“The team as a whole from our nurses and administrators to the people who took phone calls, they showed enormous resilience and professionalism – to carry on doing that when there was this hurricane.


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“One of the reasons I applied for the CEO role was because I was absolutely overwhelmed by the professionalism of the staff. Through everything else they were really trying to do their very best. And they were.

“What they weren’t doing was pointing out how they go the extra mile. They were taking it as business as normal.”

In a wide-ranging interview, farmer’s daughter Irene Watkins said the focus following the CQC reports was firmly on oversight by the hospice’s senior executives and board of trustees.

She said: “By the time the November report had come out, all the issues in the CQC report had been addressed but what came out of that was that we needed to review the full board framework: processes, reporting, terms of references.

“Board assurance is about risk. It’s easier said than done. It’s not a fixed item. You get good board assurance by debate and challenge. But you have to have the processes in place. That constant review and constant challenge is essential if you’re going to get it right.”

By that reasoning, Ms Watkins is the right woman for the job: “I like the challenge of people challenging me. I don’t feel comfortable sitting back. I like people to ask, ‘Why are you doing that? Could we do this differently?’”


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She said other points picked up on by the CQC were being actioned. The hospice was currently advertising for a new medical director and there was a focus on culture change – after the regulator probed accusations of bullying on the in-patient unit and warned staff felt “unsupported” by senior executives. Ms Watkins said she had an “open door policy” and investment had been put into new ways for staff to flag concerns.

From farmer's daughter to heading up 'Swindon's hospice'

PROSPECT Hospice’s new chief executive never wanted to be a nurse. Growing up on a small farm in the Scottish Borders, she wanted to follow her father and work the land.

It was Irene Watkins’ mother who convinced her to train as a nurse in Leeds.

“My mother did not want me to be a farmer, but I did,” she said. “She really felt nursing was much better for me than going round the sheep with my father. If I’d had my way I would have been a farmer.

“I have those country values, such as looking after your stock, looking after the land.”

Formerly the chief at a housing association in south Wales, Ms Watkins has had a varied career.

She spent 15 years working in Australia, also doing a stint at Macmillan and working in the private healthcare sector.

She joined Prospect as chief operations officer last August. “There comes a point in your career you want to do something you want to do, not necessarily to just go up the ladder,” she said.

While fixing the problems identified by the CQC is top of the to-do list, Ms Watkins is also keen to look at new ways to support people in Swindon and north Wiltshire.

Prospect is currently working with Swindon Clinical Commissioning Group and Great Western Hospital on a pilot project aimed at reducing the number of people nearing the end of their life who are taken to A&E when they could be cared for at home.

And her long-term vision for the hospice is for it to take bigger role in the community: “The hospice should be central to the community. In practice it means engaging in business supporting education, young people learning about what a hospice does.”