Lawyers last night warned the blunder at the heart of the breast cancer screening scandal will cost the NHS millions of pounds in compensation.
They are expecting those families affected to launch a ‘huge legal challenge’ against the health service.
After Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised compensation to families who lost a loved one as a direct result of the error, payouts are expected to range from £65,000 to £1million.
Between 130 and 270 women are feared to have died as a direct result of missing screening invitations due to the ‘devastating’ IT glitch.
Trixie Gough (pictured) died of breast cancer just before her 76th birthday. After news of the screening scandal broke today, her husband Brian said he was ‘gobsmacked’ and knew ‘straight away’ his wife, pictured, had not been given the scan
But many others may have had to endure unpleasant treatment and surgery because tumours were diagnosed late.
Maria Panteli, partner in the clinical negligence team at the solicitors Leigh Day said: ‘It is no surprise to learn that a failure to invite these women to their final scan meant that hundreds of lives were affected with many tragically shortened.
‘The Government now faces a potentially huge legal challenge on behalf of thousands of women, and their families, which could cost millions of pounds in compensation for those whose lives have been ruined by these failures.
‘The announcement of an independent inquiry is to be welcomed, but it must be soon and it must be rigorous.
HOW WAS THE IT GLITCH DISCOVERED?
The breast cancer scandal was only discovered thanks to an Oxford University trial into extra breast cancer screening for women.
The AgeX trial was set up in 2009 to find out whether cancers could be diagnosed with extra screenings ‘without undue harm’ in those aged 47 to 49 and 71 to 73.
Around 65 breast cancer units across the country then recruited women from these age groups with the computer programme supposed to select half at random to be given the extra screening.
But a computer glitch that was in the system from the start of the trial meant a large number of the older group had scans cancelled without ever knowing they were going to be arranged.
Once the Oxford researchers discovered the error, it soon emerged that the same mistake had affected women in the entire screening programme.
‘It needs to looks at all the reasons of how such a tragedy could have happened and be absolutely sure in its findings that, with so many lives at stake, it couldn’t happen again.’
Olivia Mitchison, senior solicitor at the negligence solicitors Bolt Burdon Kemp said: ‘This is an example of an unacceptable administrative error which may have had fatal consequences.
‘If shown to be the case, this could lead to many medical negligence claims and cost the NHS thousands in compensation. Patient safety must be the top priority for the NHS.
Mauveen Stone (pictured with husband John) , who was diagnosed with breast cancer in August, claims doctors said she had ‘slipped through the net’. She too may be eligible for compensation
OXFORD TRIAL AT THE ROOT OF BREAST CANCER DISASTER
A trial designed to see if extending the age range of breast screening reduces deaths from breast cancer may unwittingly have led to women dying unnecessarily from the disease.
The Oxford-led study, called AgeX, was set up to test whether it would be beneficial for women aged 47 to 49 and 71 to 73 to routinely be offered screenings.
Backed by Public Health England and the NHS Breast Screening Programme, it has been taking place in 65 breast screening services across England. It is thought that the computer glitch which caused the error was programmed into the system at the start of the trial in 2009 and ran through to 2018.
The algorithm randomly selected half of women in the additional age groups to be screened for cancer and half not to be.
But the program appears to have cancelled the last routine scan women in the older group should have had before their 70th.
As a result, it is thought that many women aged between aged 68 and 71 during that period did not have their last mammogram.
While those assigned extra screening will have been checked, those in the control group are the 450,000 women who missed out.
Women are currently invited for routine screening every three years between 50 and 70, although people over this age can request to continue screenings.
‘These women have been let down and put at risk because of this administrative error. This has the potential to lead to a class action.’
GPs yesterday warned that they would be inundated with worried patients trying to find out what to do next.
Health officials are in the process to writing to the 309,000 women affected by the scandal who are still alive and living in the UK.
Those who are aged 70 or 71 will be encouraged to have ‘catch up’ screening. But if they are 72 or older, however, they will face an agonising choice as to whether to have the mammograms.
At this age there is a risk they will do more harm than good by picking up slow-growing tumours, which then have to be surgically removed.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘We are shocked to learn that hundreds of thousands of women in England have missed out on their opportunity for breast screening – and the implications for GPs and our teams will potentially be significant, as patients seek reassurance and to find out where they go from here.’
Patricia Minchin (pictured) was diagnosed with breast cancer two years after she failed to get a letter for her final routine breast scan. She could potentially get a hefty payout
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Up to 450,000 women, now aged 70 to 79, may have missed out on their final routine breast screening. This is what will happen next.
- All women affected who are registered with a GP will be informed by letter from Public Health England by the end of May 2018.
- Women affected aged up to their 72nd birthday will receive a letter inviting them for a catch-up screen.
- Those aged 72 and older will be able to contact a dedicated helpline to discuss whether a screen could benefit them.
- Women, aged 70 to 79, currently registered with a GP, who do not receive a letter from PHE can be assured they are not affected and do not need a catch-up screen
- If you are not registered with a GP and believe you did not receive an invitation for a screen sometime between your 68th and 71st birthday call the below helpline.
- Women are advised to be aware of any changes to their breasts and see their GP if they have any concerns.
- Anyone concerned can call the helpline on 0800 169 2692.
My wife might have lived is she hadn’t missed out on her final scan
By Inderdeep Bains
Trixie Gough died of breast cancer just days after her 76th birthday.
Her husband of 55 years Brian said the disease could have been spotted earlier had a computer error not meant she missed out on her final scan.
Mr Gough said when he saw Jeremy Hunt’s speech about the blunder yesterday he realised his wife had been affected. ‘I was completely gobsmacked and knew straight away Trix was one of the people never given a scan,’ he said.
‘I’m devastated, I have her ashes next to me. I’m amazed that it has taken them the best part of a decade to spot the problem. It’s extraordinary.’
Trixie Gough, pictured in the days before her death in 2015, is among 450,00 women who never got a final cancer scan that may have saved her life after a ‘colossal’ NHS IT failure
The 77-year-old from Norfolk added: ‘There are thousands of real people involved in this, people like Trixie, who didn’t deserve to lose their lives.
‘I’m not saying she wouldn’t have got cancer but it could have been found earlier if she was given the scan. You have to wonder if the result would have been different.’
Mrs Gough failed to receive the notification to make an appointment for screening by the time she was 71, her husband said.
In October 2010 she found a lump in her breast and immediately saw her GP who sent her for a scan and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She had surgery followed by radio therapy and chemotherapy but after two years the cancer returned and she again went through a period of chemotherapy and blood transfusions.
Brian Gough’s wife Trixie, from Norfolk, pictured together before she fell ill, says he only found out about the scandal today while watching TV
The disease spread to her other organs and she lost her life on December 28 2015.
‘We worked all our lives and this was the time we wanted to enjoy together. That’s not possible now. She’s gone and I live alone,’ Mr Gough said.
‘It’s been very painful going over this again but she was a wonderful, brave, uncomplaining wife for almost 56 years and she is still missed enormously by all of the family. Doctors said I slipped through the net’
Mauveen Stone, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in August, claims doctors said she had ‘slipped through the net’.
The 84-year-old from Yeovil in Somerset had her last screening in 1995 when she was 62 and was given the all-clear.
However, she was never again invited to another screening or her final routine scan when she turned 70.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured today in the Commons) said anyone who had lost a loved one as a result of a missed scan would be eligible for compensation
It was only last year when she discovered a lump in her breast that she sought a check-up and doctors discovered a slow-growing cancer.
The former pub landlady and great-grandmother had to undergo surgery to remove four lymph nodes.
‘The doctors were surprised that my last screening had been in 1995. They said I must have slipped under the net,’ the mother of five said.
‘If I was invited for a screening I most definitely would have gone like I did in 1995. I do not know why I did not get any more letters. I have been at the same address since.
‘It was not something I thought about until I felt the lump. As my cancer was slow growing I don’t know how long it has been present or if it would have made a difference if I went earlier.
‘But it may well have been spotted earlier if I had been sent the invitation. I was very lucky it was slow growing. Other women might not have been so lucky.’
The problems with breast cancer screening date back to 2009 and will raise questions for both the Tories and Labour on why it was not uncovered sooner
Mrs Stone who has been given the all clear now has to undergo annual screenings.
‘I want to know why this happened’
Patricia Minchin was diagnosed with breast cancer two years after she failed to get a letter for her final routine breast scan.
The 75-year-old believes she was a victim of the error because she was due the check-up in 2013 at the age of 70 but was never sent the notification and was not screened.
Two years later she was diagnosed with breast cancer and feels she could have avoided the ‘trauma’ of the disease with earlier screening.
‘I look back now and think, you know, everything that happened since could possibly have been avoided or lessened,’ she said.
‘The whole journey I went on, the traumatic journey, all the treatment may never have had to happen.’ Mrs Minchin said she received her last letter from the breast screening programme in 2010 and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.
She told Sky News yesterday: ‘I would like somebody to tell me how it could possibly happen that I haven’t been invited for a mammogram since 2010.’
BREAST CANCER SCREENING SCANDAL: Q&A
What’s gone wrong?
Up to 450,000 women were not invited for breast cancer screening from 2009 onward due to IT and administrative failures. Between 130 and 270 have since died from the disease. Some were diagnosed late as a result.
How do I know if I’ve been affected?
The mistakes occurred in women who were aged 68 to 71 when they should have been invited for checks. Most of these women would now be in their seventies.
Not all women in this age group were caught up in the scandal – most were invited for screening as normal. All women who missed out will be sent letters from Public Health England before June.
What should I do if I receive a letter?
If you are now 70 or 71 – and you missed a screening – your letter will invite you for a ‘catch-up’ session.
If you are 72 or older you will be given the option of screening and encouraged to call a helpline to help you decide what to do. This is because for older women, screening can do more harm than good by picking up harmless tumours.
Why did this happen?
The glitch was caused by a problem with an IT algorithm – a set of rules built into a computer program. It started in 2009 when officials launched a major NHS trial to extend breast cancer screening to women aged 71 to 73.
Unfortunately, the algorithm cancelled the screening of some women aged 68 to 70. Although some went on to have screening later – as part of the NHS trial – many did not.
Some health trusts have also not been inviting all women aged 68 to 70 for breast screening. They were sent guidelines in 2009 instructing them to do so but not all trusts have been following them.
Who is to blame?
Public Health England is in charge of running and scrutinising the breast cancer screening programme and it should have picked up on the mistake much earlier.
The Department of Health and NHS England also oversee the screening and are at fault. Health trusts are likely to be blamed for not inviting some women and IT firms will be criticised for the algorithm error.