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Mislaying of 700,000 medical letters ‘totally unacceptable’ says Jeremy Hunt

The blunder relates to documents including treatment plans, blood and urine tests and cancer diagnoses.

A major blunder which saw more than 700,000 confidential patient letters mislaid was “totally unacceptable” and should never have been allowed to happen, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

However, Mr Hunt told MPs that no patients had been harmed by the mix-up, which occurred when letters sent between GPs and hospitals were mistakenly stored in a warehouse by private company NHS Shared Business Services (SBS) for five years, rather than being redirected when the patient changed GP practice or moved away.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth described the incident as “an absolute scandal”, referring to a new study from the National Audit Office which claimed more than 1,700 patients could have been put at risk by the blunder.

Responding to the urgent question in the Commons, Mr Hunt said: “First of all, what happened at SBS was totally unacceptable.

“It was incompetent and they should never have allowed that backlog to develop.”

The Health Secretary said he had been alerted to the error in March 2016 but he was advised not to inform the public in case GPs could not investigate the most urgent cases due to a barrage of calls from worried patients.

All documentation has been sent on to GPs for assessment, of which 84% were confirmed as “no harm to patients” with 9% needing further review, Mr Hunt said.

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He added: “To date no harm has been confirmed to any patients as a result of this incident.

“Today’s National Audit Office report confirms that patient safety was the Department and NHS England’s primary concern. But, as well as patient safety, transparency with both the public and the House has been my priority.

“I was advised by my 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.”

The NAO report found that, as of May 31 this year, a review of the backlog has found 1,788 cases of potential harm to patients. Overall, NHS England and NHS SBS have identified just under 709,000 items of unprocessed correspondence.

The study said that while no cases of actual harm have been identified yet, a third of GPs have not yet responded on whether unprocessed items sent to them indicate potential harm for patients.

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Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt became aware of the blunder in March 2016 (Neil Hall/PA)

Replying, Mr Ashworth said: “Is it not an absolute scandal that more than 700,000 letters including blood test results, cancer screening appointments, child protection notes were failed to be delivered, left in an unknown warehouse and many destroyed? And does not the NAO reveal today a shambolic catalogue of failure that took place on the Secretary of State’s watch?”

The mix-up could cost more than £6.6 million, which is equivalent to the annual salary for 230 nurses, he said.

Mr Ashworth also raised questions about a potential conflict of interest between Mr Hunt’s role as a board members of SBS, which is co-owned by the Department of Health, and his duties as Health Secretary.

He asked Mr Hunt: “Can you say how these costs are going to be met and do you expect these costs to escalate? Finally, do you agree with the NAO that there is a conflict of interest between your role as Secretary of State and your role as a board member?”

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