A couple of weeks ago the NHS found itself at the centre of yet another scandal involving patient data and its misappropriation. If there isn’t a dedicated Scandal Management Department at the NHS by now then they’re missing a trick. The issue this time was twofold. It appeared that between 2011 and 2016 the private company (NHS Shared Business Services) that was utilised to courier post internally between NHS departments had mistakenly stored up to 500,000 clinically important documents in a warehouse. These documents ranged from the mundane, temporary change of address forms, to the critically urgent such as test results. It remains to be seen whether any patients have suffered irrevocable harm or even death due to the delay in delivery of important correspondence. With such a vast amount of post though it seems starkly apparent that at least one person will have been say bumped down a waiting list because of missing test results. It would not be scaremongering to suggest that in at least one case it’s reasonable to assume this would have resulted in somebody’s death.

This of course would have been bad enough but it seems that whoever was in charge of managing the mess forgot one of the Golden Rules of damage limitation; clearing up is dangerously close to covering up. And this time they fell on the wrong side of that line. A fifty strong administration team was tasked with sorting out where all the post was supposed to go – all while Jeremy Hunt was harping on about a change in culture at the NHS to one of openness and transparency. I think it’s important to stress that this scandal is starkly different in nature to previous NHS data scandals. This was not a case of a USB stick full of records being left on a bus or mounds of test results found in a skip. The confidentiality and security of the documents was never in question, they were being held in a secure facility after all. Instead the scandal shines a light on the continuing question of how the NHS appropriately or inappropriately manages its mistakes. It appears they still have a lot to learn.

Frustratingly it is a problem that is almost universal in its application. You’ve been tasked with a job. You have failed to complete the job appropriately. What do you do? This has faced everyone from the tea boy who just put three sugars instead of two into the boss’s brew to the CEO who might just leave out all the bad bits from the monthly shareholder’s meeting. In every instance you are faced with a choice; own up and face the consequences or forge on under the weight of the lie and hope it gets better. Jeremy Hunt chose the latter and reality promptly smacked him in the face for it. The story is disheartening as it shows that the highest echelons of government are not immune from the basest of human emotions. Of course I’m sure there are many that will read this with the cynical sneer that politicians only look after themselves etc; which is a fair point in itself. But for people who expect a higher moral standard of those serving in public office this whole affair was a damning indictment of the ducking and weaving of responsibility that pervades government and indeed even the NHS. Positive change can only happen in small steps. In this instance those small steps would have been the ones Jeremy Hunt took to the press podium as he gave a full and frank assessment of the breakdown in process that led to this happening in the first place. Maybe next time eh?

Written By George Gordon