Over 1,700 NHS patients have been placed at risk after the loss of 700,000 pieces of medical correspondence and records. The National Audit Office (NAO) revealed last week that the data had been left to pile up in a warehouse, in a damning report on the handling of clinical correspondence by NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS).

 

The firm, which is responsible for redirecting documents in London, the East Midlands and the South East, was found to have been guilty of what MPs described as ‘a colossal blunder’.

After an initial story on the alleged cover-up by the Guardian in February 2017, the NAO — the civil service’s spending watchdog — launched its inquiry. The results have revealed not only the extent of this unprecedented loss, but also signs of obstruction and a lack of cooperation by the parties responsible.

In 2011, NHS SBS assumed control over the forwarding of misdirected medical correspondence in the East Midlands. At the time, there were 8,000 items to be redirected, a figure which sharply rose to 350,000 items in 2015. According to the report, these figures were monitored by NHS SBS throughout these years, and despite concerns raised in 2015 by administrators, nothing was done about it.

Furthermore, it is estimated that the figure could continue to rise beyond that of 1,788 cases of potential harm, as one-third of GPs contacted have not yet responded as to whether unprocessed items sent to them as part of the investigation indicate potential harm. The continuing efforts to analyse the loss of data have so far racked up a bill of £6.6 billion. However, with the potential of fines to internal and external NHS bodies involved, as well as the possibility of having to pay compensation to affected patients, this is another figure which could continue to swell.

The report confirms that managers at NHS SBS had been aware of the issue since January 2014, but had neglected to develop a plan to handle it — it was not until March, 2016 that NHS England was made aware of the backlog. According National Health Service representatives, NHS SBS’ ‘lack of cooperation’ with NHS England in the initial internal investigation amounted to ‘obstruction’.

NHS Shared Business Services is a private firm in which the Department of Health owns a 49 per cent stake. Concerns have been raised regarding the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt’s position within the matter. The auditor aired his apprehension as a conflict of interest: ‘between the secretary of state’s responsibility for the health service as a whole and his position as an NHS SBS shareholder’.

The incident raises significant questions not only about the competency and honesty of this majority, privately-owned subcontractor, but of continuing government policy to entrust matters such as this to private companies. In a BBC interview, Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth described the matter as: ‘a staggering catalogue of mistakes on this government’s watch’.

The issue has been unearthed during a period of increasing concern from within both the establishment and the media regarding the funding of public services under consecutive Conservative governments. It is the latest in a long line of NHS scandals overseen by the current Health Secretary, including that which surrounded Stafford Hospital and the recent NHS hack.