NHS system error puts lives at risk as nearly 50,000 women are not sent screening letters

Almost 50,000 women in England didn’t receive letters inviting them to cervical screening tests, it was revealed today. 

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’ of cervical cancer. 

It comes after the NHS was engulfed in a similar scandal in May, which saw 450,000 women denied life-saving breast cancer screening scans because of a ‘colossal’ IT failure. 

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 apologised for the blunder, saying the correct process ‘was not properly followed’ and implying it may sack the people responsible.

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 3.6million.  

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.’

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘Every woman’s case is being reviewed, but there is no current evidence that this incident has led to harm to the women involved, and our priority now is to ensure that anyone affected by this incident is contacted, and knows how to get checked if they are due a cervical screen.’

Capita has blamed human error for the failing and taking ‘disciplinary action’ against the people responsible for covering it up, the company said.

It said an auditing team has been appointed to investigate the incident and more stringent checks put in place to try and stop it happening again.   

In a statement, Capita said: ‘We have investigated the precise circumstances around this incident, and it is clear that the correct process for uploading, organising and checking datafiles was not properly followed.

‘When the problem was discovered, it was not immediately escalated to senior leadership, or NHS England, by the individuals responsible. 

‘Capita is investigating the managerial handling of the matter and taking appropriate disciplinary action. 

‘Additionally, a senior executive responsible for this contract has already left Capita. 

‘The risk to women of this incident is low and there is no current evidence of harm, but Capita nevertheless apologises to both the NHS and to the women whose correspondence was delayed.’  


Cervical cancer affects the lining of the lower part of womb.

The most common symptom is unusual bleeding, such as between periods, during sex or after the menopause, but other signs can include:

  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant
  • Pain in the pelvis

Being overweight or obese can double a woman’s risk of cervical cancer, research suggests.

This is due to excessive fat leading to higher levels of the hormone oestrogen, which is associated with the disease.  

Other causes can include:

  • Age – more than half of sufferers are under 45
  • HPV infection – which affects most people at some point in their lives
  • Smoking – responsible for 21 per cent of cases
  • Contraceptive pill – linked to 10 per cent of cases
  • Having children
  • Family history of cervical or other types of cancer, like vagina and kidney

In the UK, the NHS invites women aged between 25 and 64 for cervical screening, known as smear tests, every three-to-four years.

This aims to pick up abnormal cells that could lead to cancer if left untreated and saves at least 2,000 cervical cancer deaths a year in the UK.

These abnormal cells can be destroyed by methods such as laser therapy or freezing treatment. 

Since 2008, girls aged 12-to-13 have been offered an HPV vaccine, which protects against more than 70 per cent of cervical cancers. 

If diagnosed, treatment depends on where the cancer is, if it has spread and the patient’s general health.

Surgery may be required, which usually removes the womb and cervix. Enough can sometimes be left so a woman can still get pregnant. 

In more advanced cases, a combination of chemo, radiotherapy and surgery may be required.

Source: Cancer Research UK 

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