A nw report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has heavily criticised NHS England after it lost clinical data belonging to tens of thousands of patients, labelling it “one of the biggest failures in the NHS in recent history”.

The report attacked NHS England for demonstrating a “lack of grip” on its handling of clinical correspondence after it was revealed that some 700,000 documents went undelivered between 2011 and 2016.

The report also levelled criticism at the Department for Health for its “lack of oversight” of NHS Shared Business Services, the firm contracted to handle the NHS’s mail.

It said the Department repeatedly failed to identify issues with NHS SBS, despite concerns having been raised about its performance as early as 2011.

PAC said it had been “dismayed” to learn that an additional 162,000 undelivered documents had been uncovered during the course of the investigation, stating that the NHS’s “shoddy handling” of mail had put “thousands of patients at risk”.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who sits on the Public Accounts Committee, said: “This important report addresses one of the biggest failures in the NHS in recent history – one which has caused untold emotional distress and adverse health outcomes for thousands of people.

“It is bitterly disappointing that at the time of writing there are still so many unknowns, both about the true scale of the damage done and the steps being taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has said that a full review of correspondence won’t be completed until March 2018.

An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS England was deeply concerned to be informed by the SBS company in March 2016 about their backlog of unprocessed correspondence. A team of doctors and other NHS staff was quickly set up to sort through the issues.

“Fortunately there is no evidence that any patient has been harmed, and the whole matter is on track to be resolved by March.”

While PAC welcomed NHS SBS’s admission that it made mistakes, it suggested that NHS England had still not taken appropriate action.

Meg Hillier, PAC Chair and MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, said: “NHS England is keen to conclude investigations into the earlier backlog, yet its proposed method for doing so – effectively assuming some 100,000 patients have suffered no harm – is highly questionable.”

The report also suggested NHS England had not put adequate measures in place to ensure that clinical correspondence would be handled appropriately going forward.

“Senior people in NHS SBS were aware of the backlog of cases and the risk that patients could be harmed as a result, but did not develop a plan to deal with it,” the report stated.

“NHS England must obtain positive assurance from every GP reviewing correspondence that they have completed their checks and whether they have identified any cases where patients may have been harmed.”

It revealed that NHS England had written to GPs in May 2015 informing them that correspondence sent to the wrong practice should be returned to the original sender. Despite this, the organisation failed to ensure that the policy was being adhered to.

PAC called it “unacceptable” that NHS England had “given up” trying to find out whether any patients have been harmed, purely on the basis that, by October 2017, 2,000 GPs had yet to confirm whether they had reviewed their clinical correspondence.

“We were concerned to hear that NHS England has given up trying to find out whether there is any patient harm from those GPs who have not complied with the NIT’s

Moran said: “We need to see concrete plans to ensure all clinical correspondence is properly handled, and confirmation that every patient affected will receive a proper assessment of whether they were harmed.

“The Health Secretary must provide the necessary oversight and resources to ensure the committee’s recommendations are taken forward as a matter of urgency.”

At time of publication, the Department of Health had not responded to a request for comment by Digital Health News.