Legal threat over Burnham claims
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been threatened with potential legal action by Labour in a dramatic escalation of a row over claims of a "cover up" of NHS care shortcomings.
Andy Burnham brought in the party's lawyers after Mr Hunt refused to retract an allegation that his Opposition shadow was involved the suppression of a critical report into "failing" hospitals.
They have written to the Cabinet minister warning of further action unless he ends what Labour says is a baseless smear campaign against Mr Burnham.
But the Tories refused to step back, insisting there was a "clear link" between a watchdog's failure to expose high death rates and political pressure by ministers in the previous government.
"Instead of flailing around for excuses, it's time for Andy Burnham to apologise to patients for the care failures that took place on his watch," a spokeswoman for Mr Hunt said.
Bitter exchanges were sparked by the release of emails showing the Department of Health under Labour tried to stop details emerging of a hospital scandal involving higher-than-normal death rates.
Mr Burnham, who was health secretary at the time, was recorded as being "furious" when news leaked of poor standards of care in November 2009, months before the general election.
Mr Hunt seized on the emails as "shocking revelations on Andy Burnham's attempts to cover up failing hospitals".
"We're legislating to make sure this can never happen again," he wrote on Twitter.
Mr Burnham insisted the emails showed only that he was concerned that disclosure rules had been broken and that he in fact "ordered a press release...be issued later that day".
He challenged Mr Hunt to substantiate his claim or issue a public apology and retraction.
The emails, released on Friday by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) watchdog following a request by Tory MP Steve Barclay, relate to Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
They showed the DoH ordered the CQC not to brief the press on an inspector's report into the trust, which found appalling standards of hygiene.
But by then the CQC had already told three national newspapers the report was impending and the story was being published by the Press Association.
The CQC report into Basildon detailed major concerns about unusually high death rate among patients.
Mr Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire, said Mr Burnham's position as shadow health secretary was "untenable"as he was shown "putting pressure on the regulator to water down its concerns".
The Conservative spokeswoman said: "It's astonishing that Labour are still trying to deny the clear link between the CQC's decision not to expose poor hospital care under the last Government and the political pressure applied to the CQC by Labour ministers."
She pointed to evidence given under oath by ex-CQC chair Baroness Young that they "were under huge pressure not to criticise the government" which increased under Mr Burnham.
Mr Burnham had also told the CQC its job was to "restore public confidence in the NHS", she said.
And Mr Burnham's claims about the emails were undermined by one from the watchdog saying it followed procedures but failed to ensure "that the political implications were understood by ministers", she added.