A PRIVATE company stashed away in a warehouse for five years more than 700,000 confidential NHS patient letters it was supposed to shuttle between hospitals and GP practices, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted yesterday.
The letters included blood test results, cancer screening appointments and child protection notes.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth described it as “an absolute scandal.”
Mr Hunt told the Commons that the huge blunder by NHS Shared Business Services (SBS) had been “incompetent.” The Department of Health co-owns SBS — and Mr Hunt is on its board.
He also admitted that he had kept quiet about the mammoth backlog, having known about it since March 2016.
He claimed that he had been advised not to tell the public until GPs had been alerted so that calls from worried patients would not hinder investigations into urgent cases.
Mr Hunt said over his silence: “Transparency is incredibly important but it’s not an absolute virtue.”
Whitehall’s spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) has reported that at the end of May this year it had counted 1,788 cases of potential harm to patients as a result of the backlog blunder.
Overall, NHS England and NHS SBS have identified just under 709,000 items of unprocessed correspondence.
The NAO study said that while no cases of actual harm had been identified yet, a third of GPs had not yet responded on whether unprocessed items sent to them indicated potential harm for patients.
The NAO has raised concerns over a potential conflict of interest between Mr Hunt’s roles as an SBS board member and health secretary.
Sorting out the letters shambles could cost more than £6.6 million, which is equivalent to the annual salary for 230 nurses, Mr Ashworth pointed out.
SBS was stripped of the contract in 2015, Mr Hunt told MPs, and will have to pay “their fair share” of the costs resulting from the incident.
The process of clinical review to ensure there has been no patient harm will take until the end of the year.
Alan Taman, a Keep Our NHS Public spokesman, told the Star: “This is the reality of privatisation.
“This is what will happen if you hand our health over to companies whose first loyalty is to the money and their shareholders.
“It is what happens when you break up a decent public service in the name of ‘competition’ so your deep-pocketed chums can saunter up, take their fill, and waddle away, pockets jangling, when it suits them — leaving the taxpayer to sort out the mess.
“It is what happens when rich politicians carve up our NHS to suit their own beliefs — and bank accounts.
“It is the corruption and unfairness of market ideals slipped into a public service. This government has no respect for the values of the NHS, and no intentions of treating it safely.”