Hunt: No evidence patients at risk after NHS misplaces confidential documents
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that there is "no evidence" that patients have been put at risk after the NHS mislaid more than 700,000 pieces of confidential medical correspondence.
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 loss of letters referring to cancer screenings and blood tests as "an absolute scandal", and warned that patient safety could be compromised by the mix-up.
Responding to an urgent question in the Commons, Mr Hunt said: "Patient safety, as you know, is always our primary concern.
"As things stand, if you had listened to my response, you would have heard that there is no evidence so far that any patient safety has been put at risk."
Mr Hunt told MPs that he was alerted to the mix-up in March 2016 when health bosses discovered some 708,000 letters had been lost by SBS since 2011, which was operating a redirection service in the East Midlands, the South West and north-east London.
Of these, 2,500 were investigated over possible risks to patient safety.
Mr Ashworth said: "Let's be under no illusions, this is a catastrophic breach of data protection.
"Over half a million patients' data including blood tests results, cancer screening results, biopsy results, even correspondence relating to cases of child protection - all undelivered.
"They were languishing in a warehouse on the Secretary of State's watch. It's an absolute scandal."
Citing accusations of a "cover-up", Mr Ashworth pressed the Health Secretary on why the full extent of the problem was not revealed last year.
He went on: "Two months into 2017 and the Health Secretary lurches from one crisis to another.
"Hospitals overcrowded, waiting lists out of control.
"He can't deliver the investment our NHS needs, he can't deliver a social care solution, he can't deliver patient safety and now he can't even deliver the post.
"He has overseen a shambles that puts patient safety at risk.
"Patients deserve answers and they deserve an apology."
In reply, Mr Hunt acknowledged there had been a mix-up but insisted that no patient data had been compromised as it was stored securely.
He said: "Let me say that it was indeed totally incompetent of SBS to allow this to happen and we take full responsibility as a government because we were responsible at the time.
"But the measure of the competence of a government isn't when suppliers make mistakes - I could gently remind you that it did happen a few times when Labour were running the NHS - the measure is what you do to sort out the problem.
"Immediately we set up a national incident team. Every single piece of correspondence has been assessed, around 80% of higher risk cases have been assessed by a second clinician."
Mr Hunt denied that there had been a cover-up.
He said he was advised not to make the issue public initially due to concern that GPs would be unable to investigate the most urgent cases if they were inundated with calls from worried patients.
He told MPs that he referred to the incident in a written ministerial statement in July last year and in his annual report.
Mr Hunt added: "As soon as we judged it was possible to do so, we informed this House, we informed the public and we stayed absolutely true to our commitment, both to patient safety and to transparency."
Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Tory chairwoman of the Health Select Committee, argued that the situation showed the need for patients to be empowered to access their records digitally.
"This is undoubtedly a very serious incident but I welcome the detailed and thorough steps that the Secretary of State has taken to protect patient safety," she said.
"However, he will know that there are ongoing problems with the transfer of patient records and GPs and hospitals spend endless hours chasing up results, investigations and letters on a daily basis.
"Isn't it time that patients were given direct control of their own records and will the Secretary of State update the House on this?"
Mr Hunt replied: "You are right that although the process of sending on these particular documents has been taken in house, other parts of the contract were taken on by a company called Capita and there have been... teething problems which we are very aware of and we know it has been causing problems for GPs."
He added: "You are right though: In the long run the issue is to give patients control of their records."
Mr Hunt said data security is a key concern in the push for more information to be accessed electronically as he said the Government is "looking very closely at the systems used by banks".
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt insisted the Government had reacted "as quickly as we possibly could to keep patients safe" and that the "data was not lost, it was kept in a secure setting".
He also confirmed that some £2.2 million is being paid to GPs to get on top of the correspondence.
Tory Philip Hollobone (Kettering) asked Mr Hunt how the misplaced data had been discovered.
Mr Hunt said: "I wish I could give you the answer to that question."