Following Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s statement to the House of Commons last Wednesday about breast cancer screening gaffes going back to 2009, we have seen a blizzard of blamestorming from a bewildering range of NHS departments and cancer charities. As ever, Hunt apologised….but had an alibi: computer error. Did he tell the truth?
Jeremy Hunt is fortunate, in that bigger stories like Windrush and the local elections have relegated the breast cancer cock-up to being something of a media also-ran.
But that may have changed this morning, following a Sky News interview with a breast cancer awareness expert. She told the news station that on Hunt’s watch, the Government controlled Public Health England (PHE) had in fact changed its policy on breast cancer screening and that – in her view – this was a bigger factor in resultant deaths than computer algorithm “faults”.
Everyone potentially culpable for the oversight/software/policy change has spent the last 48 hours trying to present a moving target for those in search of accountability:
- It was reported by several media outlets that PHE had known about the issues as early as March last year. The Times, Daily Mail and BBC said two NHS trusts had alerted PHE to the fact that letters were not going out to some women, but were told it was a local matter rather than a national one.
- PHE itself says, “The problem was identified in January 2018 whilst reviewing the progress of the age extension trial (AgeX). It then became apparent that a similar impact has resulted from long term problems with the routine programme as well. It too blames software errors.
- Hunt himself told the Commons the problem resulted from a “computer algorithm failure”, which led to some women not receiving their final breast screening.
- The Sun says, ‘Hitachi Consulting is based in Dallas, and was awarded the contract to run the software in 2015….The company refused to comment as to why the firm dismissed concerns flagged as far back as March 2017 – having logged them as “local issues”
- PHE has now conceded that the breast cancer screening error was flagged by up by three NHS trusts 14 months ago.
- Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says it was “profoundly misleading” for PHE to “spin” the error as a “computer glitch”, adding that a fall in breast screening take-up in England should have flagged up concerns.
- Most damaging of all for Hunt, the charity boss interviewed by Sky this morning said the glitch was “a red herring”, and that the failure was part and parcel of a change in PHE policy.
Obviously, emerging information leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the Health Secretary to answer:
- Why was the view of NHS Trusts ignored for a year before Hunt’s department admitted there was a problem?
- Who signed off and initiated the appointment of Texas-based Hitachi consulting?
- Why did PHE, which reports directly to Hunt and for which he has direct responsibility, blatantly lie about when the problem came to light?
- What does the IPPR know (that we don’t) to embolden its boss Tom Kibase to describe blaming a computer glitch as “profoundly misleading”?
- How exactly did PHE change its policy in 2015 and who initiated the change?
We’re heading into a long weekend. But after that, I think we need to get the Health Secretary who defies Prime Ministers back in front of the Commons to explain these odd discrepancies.
No doubt he will once again perform his Uriah Heep impression, and whine that he “has done nothing wrong”. But this time, his peers, we the People and the media should decide.
To lose a Home Secretary in three weeks is careless, albeit self-expulcatory. To lose a Health Secretary barely three weeks later might be deemed a disaster. On the other hand, the PM might relish giving the Great Dissembler a push along the plank towards the sharks.
As you might imagine, I am in floods of tears at the thought of Jeremy’s demise.