Breast cancer screening scandal which terrified families never existed

File photo of a consultant analysing a mammogram. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

File photo of a consultant analysing a mammogram. Photo: Rui Vieira/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Hundreds of thousands of women and their families were left terrified over a breast cancer screening scandal which never existed, a review has found.

Then health secretary Jeremy Hunt revealed in the House of Commons in May that an estimated 450,000 women aged between 68 and 71 were not invited to their final breast screening, which may have led to hundreds of missed cancer diagnoses.

At the time he apologised 'wholeheartedly and unreservedly for the suffering caused' on behalf of the government, Public Health England and the NHS, and said 270 women may have died as a result.

It was estimated around 3,050 women in the catchment area for the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) were affected.

The hospital paid temporary radiographers, brought a third ultrasound machine, and made a room available in genito-urinary medicine to tackle the apparent backlog, while the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn also held extra appointments.

MORE: Shorter appointments, more staff, and an extra machine needed to cope with breast cancer screening scandal backlog

But it has now been revealed this was unnecessary as the blunder never existed - due to the government's failure to understand its own policy on inviting women for checks.

An independent review found almost every aspect of the information was wrong.

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Instead, it found the misunderstanding arose because of a specification document written in 2013.

This said women should be invited for screening 'within 36 months of their previous screening, until they reach the age of 71'.

In the opinion of the review, this document was based on a misunderstanding of how the programme was being delivered in practice, with local screening units continuing to understand the upper age limit as 70, and to communicate this to women in invitation letters.

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The report said up to 67,000 women may have not been invited to a final screening, but NHS England has assured the panel that all these women have since been invited to a catch-up screening.

It said no one person, or body, was to blame for the confusion, but in the rush to announce and correct the issue, assumptions were made about policy and operations which were not sufficiently challenged.

The review was co-chaired by Lynda Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, who said: 'We know that the announcement in May of a breast screening incident caused anxiety for thousands of women, sometimes unnecessarily, and it was of critical importance that their voices and concerns were heard as part of this independent review.

'It is completely unacceptable that there was confusion about what the breast screening programme should have been delivering.

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'There needs to be clarity, and importantly women need clear information about what they should be able to expect.'

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said: 'After months of uncertainty, it is totally unacceptable — and extremely concerning — to learn that hundreds of thousands of women have been unnecessarily caused such significant distress.

'This has been nothing short of a system failure, precipitated by a lack of clear ownership and strong leadership of a world-leading programme.'

In a written ministerial statement, Steve Brine, the public health minister, said: 'I would like to apologise for the distress and suffering caused by this incident.'

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