ON MONDAY, in the House of Commons, Health Secretary Hunt was asked an urgent question as to why he had covered up for, and refused to make public, the ‘mislaying’ of 708,000 items of correspondence by a private company between hospitals and GPs concerning the health problems of their patients.
Hunt told MPs that he was informed of the ‘mislaying’ on March 24 2016 and admitted that news of this non-delivery to three areas of England – the East Midlands, North-East London and the South-West of England – was then suppressed by himself.
He said: ‘I was advised by officials not to make the issue public last March until an assessment of the risks to patient safety had been completed and all relevant GP surgeries informed. I accepted that advice, for the very simple reason that publicising the issue could have meant GP surgeries being inundated with inquiries from worried patients, which would have prevented them from doing the most important work – namely, investigating the named patients who were potentially at risk.’
In fact, last March he was very busy seeking to impose a hated new contract on the junior doctors and such a revelation may well have cost him his job, since he was accusing junior doctors of endangering patient safety, and the profession, by their opposition to seven-day working, and so being responsible for patient deaths!
He did not release the information until the last day of the parliamentary sitting on July 21, 2016 when a 138-word statement to Parliament just said that ‘some correspondence’ had not reached the intended recipients.
Jonathan Ashworth for Labour, responding to Hunt, said: ‘Let us be under no illusions: this is a catastrophic breach of data protection. More than half a million pieces of patient data – including blood test results, cancer screening results, biopsy results, and even correspondence relating to cases of child protection – were all undelivered, languishing in a warehouse, on the Secretary of State’s watch. It is an absolute scandal.’
He however did not call for the resignation of Health Secretary Hunt! Hunt felt emboldened enough by this treacherous position to respond: ‘As he knows, patient safety is always our primary concern, but if he had listened to my response he would have heard that, as things stand, there is no evidence so far that patients’ safety has been put at risk. Well, we have been through more than 700,000 documents, and so far, we can find no such evidence. We are now doing a second check, with GPs, on 2,500 documents – so a second clinical opinion is being sought – nearly 2,000 of which we believe will not show any evidence, and we are now going through the remaining ones.’
This disastrous situation is 11 months after the Health Secretary decided to keep the loss of the 708,000 documents a secret from the House of Commons and the people. Meanwhile, NHS England is investigating 537 ‘live cases’ resulting from the failure to deliver the documents over five-year period, and that 500 patients may have suffered serious harm as a result of the NHS mislaying of their test results and letters.
A review is also looking into whether correspondence between GPs and hospitals, mislaid between 2011 and 2016, caused or contributed to the death of any patients. Chris Wormald, the permanent secretary at the Department of Health, giving evidence to the public accounts committee on Monday, said that NHS England is still investigating the 537 ‘live cases’ to establish if any patient’s health had been damaged because of the ‘blunder’.
Wormald said that these 537 cases include 173 which, having already been examined for evidence of ‘potential high risk of harm’, are now being subjected to ‘further clinical review’.
It is still a state secret as to how many patients were seriously affected by the loss of the documents although Meg Hillier, the committee chair, said that the Department of Health as the co-owner of NHS SBS – which mislaid the material – may have to pay compensation to any patient whose health may ultimately be shown to have suffered as a direct result of the incident.
The issue is that Hunt should have paid with the loss of his job. In refusing to demand his resignation, Labour betrayed the struggle to defend the NHS from the Tory vandals.