A Welsh hospital in a cervical cancer scare faces a potential damages bill of at least 700,000 from affected women and their families.

This comes on top of the 240,000 salary paid to the doctor who headed the department involved since he was suspended on full pay four years ago, pending a disciplinary inquiry.

Two women died and 12 more had treatment delayed because cancerous cells were identified too late by the laboratory at Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil, according to a report from Bro Taf health authority.

Bro Taf HA, which took over responsibility for the hospital from Mid Glamorgan HA, has 'profoundly' apologised for errors in tests read between 1988 and 1994.

Local solicitor Malcolm Evans, who is representing 10 cases, has written to the HA asking for an interim payment for the women. He said some were forced to have a hysterectomy and radiotherapy as a result of the failures.

'It is difficult to say a figure, as the awards will vary, but general damages for pain and suffering alone could be anything from 25,000 to 60,000 for each case,' he said.

Bro Taf HA issued its apology before the final results of disciplinary proceedings have been made known.

Liberal Democrat MP Richard Livsey claims this could jeopardise the chance of a fair hearing for Dr Bernard Charnley, who was suspended in 1994 on an estimated 60,000 a year.

Although there has been an initial disciplinary hearing, the matter was not resolved. It is now being discussed by a special panel, chaired by a barrister.

Its report is due any day. Dr Charnley was quoted in November 1996 as saying that his personal accuracy in cytology reporting was 'among the best in the country'.

An HA spokesperson defended the decision to apologise before the expert panel reported: 'We had to apologise because there were problems. We have to accept liability for that.'

Bro Taf HA has also recently been forced to pay out 100,000 to a woman who was awake during a sterilisation operation at Prince Charles Hospital.