On 2 May 2018 I informed the House of a serious failing in the national breast screening programme in England, which resulted in thousands of women aged between 68 and 71 not being invited to their final breast screening between 2009 and May 2018. This statement provides an update on the specific commitments I made in my oral statement and the actions we are now taking to support those affected and prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
First, in my original statement, I committed that the NHS would offer an appointment for screening to all women who missed their scheduled appointment as a result of this error, and that we would provide clear information and advice for anyone with concerns. I asked Public Health England to work with the NHS to contact women who missed their screening by the end of May. I can now confirm that Public Health England met this deadline by 18 May, contacting 195,565 women registered with a GP in England. In addition, all the affected women known to have moved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland were also written to by 1 June 2018.
The result of this is that as of 1 June 2018, 26,774 women have now received an appointment for screening, with hundreds already screened. I am providing detailed information on how many women have been contacted in each English constituency, alongside the confirmation that we have written to all those women now registered with a GP in one of the devolved administrations - 503 women in Scotland, 94 women in Wales and 72 women in Northern Ireland. In addition, a dedicated helpline was established on 2 May 2018 to support women who may have concerns. This helpline operates from 8am to 8pm, 7 days a week, and has received over 46,000 calls.
Second, I made clear that no one would face delays to their routine screening as a result of the NHS catching up on these additional appointments. I can confirm that, over the last 4 weeks, the NHS has put in place an additional 68,000 screening appointments nationally and is on track to ensure that all women affected who want a screen will be seen by the end of October, without impacting on other patients. I want to put on record my enormous gratitude to clinical staff who have worked tirelessly to offer additional appointments and to management teams who have co-ordinated and pooled their resources across different centres, or looked to other private providers, to expand capacity to manage the extra demand.
Third, I explained to the House that we were still attempting to understand how many women had been affected and how many had experienced harm as a result. I made clear that some of the figures I provided were provisional estimates and undertook to provide a further update. I can now confirm, based on analysis by Public Health England, using data provided by NHS Digital that up to 174,000 women were affected by this issue, of which we know that up to 130,000 are still alive. As a result, the numbers who may have had their lives shortened as a result of missing their screening is now estimated to be less than 75. Whilst this figure is lower than the original estimates given in my statement , this does not lessen the devastating impact that this has had on some people’s lives.
Finally, the most important thing we can do in cases of serious error is to ensure there is a robust and thorough process to investigate, understand and learn from what went wrong. In my original statement, I also announced an independent review, chaired by Lynda Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, and Professor Martin Gore, consultant medical oncologist and professor of cancer medicine at the Royal Marsden with Peter Wyman from the CQC as the Vice Chair. I can now confirm that we have agreed the terms of reference for this review, details of which are attached to this statement. The Chairs are considering how best to involve affected women, their families and wider stakeholders and will release information on this when it is available.
Our cancer screening programme is widely recognised as world-leading, but on this occasion a number of women have been let down. It is now clear that this may have resulted in significant harm for a small number of women, while thousands more have faced unnecessary distress and anxiety as they waited to hear if they have been affected. I would like to repeat my wholehearted and unreserved apology to the women affected and their families – and above all reassure them that we are working hard to understand what went wrong and what we need to do to stop similar incidents from happening in the future.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords