Doctors will be given the opportunity to opt out of new league tables assessing their performance, it has emerged.

The tables - central to government plans for a more transparent NHS - aim to show patients how well consultant-led surgical teams in hospitals across England are performing against each other.

The move, announced under the NHS Mandate, aims to ”shine a light on variation and unacceptable practice”.

But it has emerged doctors could be able to refuse to disclose the details under data protection laws - an option which industry officials say is based on legal advice.

A Royal College of Surgeons spokesman confirmed doctors would need to consent to the figures being published later this year, but said early feedback suggested few would opt out.

The spokesman said: “We don’t have firm figures yet but the early indications are that the numbers consenting to this are very high.

“There is no attempt to hide poor performance.”

The spokesman added: “All consultant surgeons performing procedures which are the subject of the national clinical audits in England have been asked to consent to having their data published and we are encouraging them to do so.

“The surgical specialty associations are currently working with HQIP (Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership) to gain consent from their members for publication this summer.

“On the basis of legal advice taken by the NHS and HQIP, it has been indicated that consent has to be sought, and data for non-consenting surgeons cannot not be published without breaching the Data Protection Act.

“Later this year, it is expected that publication of surgeon-level data will be mandated by NHS England. We see this as a watershed moment for the profession and strongly urge surgeons to take part in this important initiative.”

Plans for how the league tables will work are still being finalised, although they are intended to drive up standards and offer patients greater transparency.

But a senior Whitehall source told the Daily Telegraph the opt-out situation was “farcical”.

“The medical establishment has closed ranks to stop patients finding the truth,” the source said. “This is tantamount to schools being able to stop the release of information about their pupils’ exam results.”

The newspaper said those medical professions who refuse to give consent will not have data relating to their performance published, nor will they be identified for having blocked the publication, under the current plans.

An NHS England spokesman said there was a lot of support for the tables among consultants, with around 96 per cent of respondents opting in to the publication.

“We urge all consultants to think very carefully about the effect on their patients and their colleagues if they choose to opt out on the basis of legislation designed to protect personal data,” the spokesman said.

“The publication of consultant-level data for 10 surgical specialties heralds a new level of openness, but there is some way to go before the NHS is as transparent as it should be.”