More than half a million sensitive NHS documents were kept in storage by a private company instead of being delivered to doctors, hospitals and others between 2001 and 2016, it has been reported.
The papers were said to include medical test results, diagnoses of illnesses including cancer and information relating to child protection, according to the Guardian.
They were not delivered after errors by a contractor, NHS Shared Business Services (SBS), meant they were sent to a warehouse instead, the newspaper said. The company is owned by the Department of Health and Sopra Steria, a French firm.
An NHS investigation was launched after the mistake was discovered in March 2016 in an attempt to find out whether any patients suffered as a result of the mistakes.
There were 708,000 items undelivered, but 200,000 were not medically sensitive.
However, of the remainder, investigators have already identified at least 2,500 items whose absence may have caused harm to patients. The extent of the problem is still being assessed.
A 50-strong Leeds based team is being led by Jill Matthews, managing director at NHS England’s primary care branch. Their work has shown at least 7,700 GP surgeries around the country were affected.
Doctors have been paid £2.2m so far to analyse the documents returned to their clinics, but others have said they are too busy or asked administrators to do it.
“This is a very serious incident, it should never have happened and it’s an example of what happens when the NHS tries to cut costs by inviting private companies to do work which they don’t do properly,” Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee, told the Guardian.
He added that there would “undoubtedly” be cases of GPs not having patient information from previous consultations.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said it was “an absolute scandal” and “astonishing”.
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“Patient safety will have been put seriously at risk as a result of this staggering incompetence,” he added.
“The news is heartbreaking for the families involved and it will be scarcely believable for these hospitals and GPs who are doing their best to deliver services despite the neglect of the government.”
An NHS England spokeswoman said: “Some correspondence forwarded to SBS between 2011-2016 was not redirected or forwarded by them to GP surgeries or linked to the medical record when the sender sent correspondence to the wrong GP or the patient changed practice.
“A team including clinical experts has reviewed that old correspondence and it has now all been delivered wherever possible to the correct practice. SBS have expressed regret for this situation.”
The Department of Health said: “The department and NHS England have been completely transparent while work has been ongoing to resolve this issue, with patient safety as ever our first priority.
“In July, the Health Secretary informed parliament and in September, senior civil servants updated the Public Accounts Committee.”