08/05/2018 16:48 BST | Updated 08/05/2018 19:29 BST

Jeremy Hunt Defends Non-Medical Staff Running Breast Cancer Screening Failure Helpline

Computer error meant 450,000 women missed out on checks.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has been criticised for allowing a helpline for women affected by breast cancer screening failures to be staffed by call handlers with no medical training.

In a heated exchange in the Commons on Tuesday, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Hunt victims “deserve better”.

Attacking the government’s willingness to hand some public services over to private contractors, Ashworth said: “Now we learn that the hotline for women affected by the breast cancer screening failures is provided by Serco and staffed by call handlers, who far from having medical or counselling training, had one hours’ training. 

“Don’t the women affected deserve better than that?  Will he provide the resources for that phone line to be brought back in-house and staffed by medical professionals?”

Hunt, who revealed last week that 450,000 women had missed out on breast screening appointments due an “algorithm error” in a computer system, defended his decision.

“I think those women deserve a lot better than that posturing,” he said.

“That helpline was set up at very short notice, obviously the call handlers could not do all their training until I had made a statement to Parliament, which I judged was the most important thing to do first.

PA Wire/PA Images
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt

“It’s not the only help those affected women will be getting.

“They will then, on the basis of advice received, be referred either back for help at their local hospital, or to Macmillan Cancer Support, or with specialist clinicians at Public Health England.”

The health secretary said he believed it was right that the helpline number was made accessible for those who needed it “as quickly as possible”.

Thousands of women are expected to receive letters telling them they missed out on screening in the next month and early indications show many will have already received a terminal cancer diagnosis. 

Hunt, who has ordered an independent inquiry into what went wrong with the system, has apologised “wholeheartedly and unreservedly for the suffering caused” to affected families.