Some 48,500 women in England did not receive letters inviting them or reminding them to attend cervical screening tests, which can pick up on early warnings of cancer (stock image)

Nearly 50,000 women are ‘at risk of cervical cancer’ because of an NHS system error

Almost 50,000 women in England didn’t receive letters inviting them to cervical screening tests so could be at risk of cancer, experts have warned.

An NHS blunder meant thousands of letters to female patients were not sent and more than 4,500 of those were regarding their test results.

The British Medical Association, the GPs’ trade union, has written to NHS England about its ‘extreme concern’ that so many women did not get the letters.

‘This is an incredibly serious situation,’ said the association’s Dr Richard Vautrey. He added it was ‘appalling that patients may now be at risk’.  

Some 48,500 women in England did not receive letters inviting them or reminding them to attend cervical screening tests, which can pick up on early warnings of cancer (stock image)

Some 48,500 women in England did not receive letters inviting them or reminding them to attend cervical screening tests, which can pick up on early warnings of cancer (stock image)

The error has been traced back to the private company Capita and pressure is mounting on the NHS to cut ties with the firm.

Capita blamed the blunder on human error, saying correct process ‘was not properly followed’.

The BMA accused the company of being ‘shambolic’ and said NHS England must take the blame for paying it to do the work.

The NHS sends women letters every three years after they turn 25 inviting them for a cervical screening test.

The tests pick up on abnormal cells on the cervix which, if caught early, can be removed in order to try and prevent cervical cancer.

But as many as 48,500 women may not have received their letters inviting them for screenings because of Capita’s mistake, the BMA said.

And 4,508 women missed letters about the results of their screenings – more than 100 of which are thought to have shown abnormal findings, meaning those women could be at risk of cancer.

Of those women, 90 have already been contacted and the NHS is tracking down the rest over the next 10 days, The Sun reported.

Dr Vautrey said: ‘This is an incredibly serious situation, and it is frankly appalling that patients may now be at risk because of this gross error on the part of Capita.

‘Some women will now be left extremely anxious because they have not received important correspondence, particularly letters about abnormal smear test results that need urgent follow up. This has been caused solely by Capita’s incompetence.’


More than 100,000 patients were caught up in NHS data blunders between July 2016 and July 2017, and Capita was responsible for 12 out of the 18 serious errors. 

Sacks of medical records were delivered to the wrong surgeries, emails sent to private firms and confidential details published on websites.

The number of serious ‘data’ incidents doubled in a year and they were last year occurring at a frequency of one every three weeks.

According to the NHS’s own figures, some 18 serious errors were reported in 2016/17, affecting just under 101,000 patients.

In one case in July 2016, a health trust mistakenly sent confidential information about 100,000 patients to an unnamed ‘third party.

At the time the British Medical Association’s Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘This is yet another serious failure of a service commissioned by NHS England and now run by Capita.

‘General Practice is based on the confidence patients have in their GP to take care of their important and confidential information. 

‘It is unacceptable in this context for Capita’s systems to have failed so often, badly letting down both patients and practices.’  

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has said women shouldn’t panic but the NHS must answer for its failings.

The body has urged the health service to ‘seriously review’ its contract with Capita, suggesting pressure will grow on NHS bosses to cut ties with the company.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, RCGP chair, said: ‘This error has put patients at risk, and it will undoubtedly cause women more anxiety. 

‘It is vital everything is done as a matter of urgency to rectify the situation, and ensure all affected women are informed – particularly those who have not received their test results.

‘We urge women not to panic and to await further information – we understand that NHS England are already working to contact anyone who has been affected.’

This is not the first time Capita has messed up while working for the NHS this year.

The company was hired in 2015 to run a £330million back-office services contract for the NHS, in which it was required to crack down on ‘ghost patients’.

These are patients who don’t exist in reality but are registered at GP surgeries and, since Capita took over, the number of them has risen from three million to 3.6m.  

Health leaders are furious with the company’s failure to meet the high standard expected.  

‘Since it took responsibility for GP back room functions three years ago, Capita‘s running of these services has been nothing short of shambolic,’ added the BMA’s Dr Vautrey.

‘And after repeated warnings from the BMA and government, this is now clear evidence that its failings have put patient safety – and possibly lives – at risk.

‘It is ultimately NHS England that bears overall responsibility and it must now take this service back in-house. 

‘As the body which commissioned Capita to take on this work, despite clear warning signs that it was not up to the job, NHS England must shoulder the blame for this dreadful situation; you cannot outsource responsibility.’ 

Dr Stokes-Lampard added: ‘This is the second blunder of its kind this year, and we all need answers about why this has happened and assurance that it will not happen again.

‘We will be asking NHS England to urgently and seriously review its contract with Capita – this is the latest in a long line of serious errors made by the company, and it is clear to us that they have not properly understood the scope or complexity of the work they have bid to do to support primary care.’

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