Published: 27/06/2002, Volume II2, No.5811 Page 22 23

The proverbial martian pitching up in the UK last week would have been scratching its head as to why the National Health Service was so named when, according to the media, its main job appears to be to kill and injure people.

The floodgates opened on Tuesday as the nationals all picked up on London's Evening Standard story revealing the government's attempt to restrict the publication of data detailing the number of 'adverse incidents' in British hospitals. In an attempt to rubbish the story, government sources were forced to brief that the real reason the figures were kept under wraps was because they were too low!

By Wednesday, the tone had been set and press reports on the National Patient Safety Agency conference, where the data was due to be released, were hardly those the new body would have hoped for.'NHS staff make a million errors a year, 'declared The Daily Telegraph .'One million patients 'suffer harm in NHS hospitals'' echoed The Guardian . In the Daily Mail , health minister Lord Hunt warned the public that they must 'come to terms'with NHS errors.

But there were voices protesting against all this wailing and gnashing over the adverse incident figures. Simon Jenkins in The Times , pointing out correctly that most of the reported incidents were 'insignificant', decided to get upset about that instead, declaring: 'It is incredible that officials waste time and money collecting this red-tape drivel.'

The Independent 's David Aaronovitch surely spoke for thousands of early-morning radio listeners when he wrote: 'But the story, surely to God (and here, as so often, I cast my eyes towards the editor of the Today programme, Rod Liddle) was what the [NPSA] study told us about the NHS and how to improve things.So Rod, can you get your editorial staff to read something other than the Daily Mail?'- 'HSJ perhaps', he might have added.

But in such a difficult week, there was some light relief and some serious Schadenfreude to be had and - glory be - it came from the Daily Mail .

In the same edition that carried Lord Hunt's comments, the Mail admitted: 'In the first editions of the Mail yesterday, we wrongly gave the national rate of patients suffering medical errors as one in every five.The true figure should have been one in 10 ...'Slippery things patient safety figures, obviously.