A hotline set up after the breast cancer screening scandal was revealed has taken almost 14,000 calls from women affected by the IT failure.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was forced to defend the decision to use the outsourcing firm Serco to operate the hotline after staff were said to have received just one hour’s training.
A computer error has been blamed for 450,000 women aged 68 to 71 not being invited to their final routine screening.
Between 135 and 270 women potentially had their lives shortened as a result of the breast cancer screening error and families of women who died of the illness could find there was a missed opportunity for diagnosis.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Hunt told MPs: “I met with the Public Health England chief executive this afternoon and I’m informed that 65,000 letters were sent out last week and the helpline has taken nearly 14,000 calls to date. Further letters are going out this week and the first invitations for catch-up screening will go out next week.
“Due to the lack of clinical consensus about the effectiveness of screening for older women, we will provide advice and support for all who miss scans and support them in making their own decision as to whether to proceed.
“And we’ll also be publishing the terms of reference for the independent inquiry shortly, and I can assure the House that no stone will be left unturned in uncovering the truth.”
Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth asked if the hotline would be brought in-house and staffed by medical professionals.
He said: “Now we learn that the hotline for the 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 hour’s training. Don’t the women affected deserve better than that?”
Mr Hunt said: “I normally have so much respect for you but I think those women deserve a lot better than that posturing.
“That helpline was set up at very short notice because the call handlers couldn’t do all their training until I had made a statement to Parliament, which I judged was the most important thing to do first.
“It’s not the only help that those affected women will be getting. They will then, on the basis of advice received, be referred either for help at their local hospital or with Macmillan cancer support or through specialist clinicians at Public Health England.
“But we thought it was right that number was made available as quickly as possible.”