• Dead patients warned they were at risk of contracting virus
  • Mistake occurred during rush to contact patients most at risk

NHS Digital has apologised to families after sending letters to more than 10,000 deceased patients, warning them they were at extra risk of covid-19.

The tech body made the error last month while alerting people they had been put on the shielded patient list, which has been established to protect the most vulnerable people in society from the virus.

People on the list are able to access extra support if needed, and they are given specific guidance for avoiding contracting the illness.

During a project to send letters to more than 900,000 people placed on the list as part of the scheme’s first phase, NHSD mistakenly issued letters to 10,924 people who had been treated with radiotherapy for lung cancer but died between 2006 and 2017.

When drawing up the list, NHSD had to combine routine NHS data from “multiple sources”, in what the organisation described as a “complex process”.

Project chiefs used an algorithm — which was approved by chief medical officer Chris Whitty last month — to identify patients for the list, which includes people with cancer, respiratory conditions, rare diseases, and certain transplant patients.

According to NHSD, the algorithm relied on data held in “clinical codes”, which were “translated” by “expert clinicians” to identify individual patients. However, a “coding issue” resulted in the group of deceased patients being contacted.

The mailing process was suspended for “a matter of hours” after the error was discovered.

In a statement, NHSD said: “Our priority was to ensure that we got vital information to vulnerable patients as quickly as possible.

“In this particular case, we made a mistake by inadvertently writing to a group of patients who had died.

“This shouldn’t have happened, and we therefore wish to apologise for any distress or upset that we have caused.

“We are working hard and at unprecedented speed to get information out to patients as quickly as possible, because we know how important it is that people have accurate and timely information during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

Currently, around 1.3 million patients in England are on the shielded patient list.

The list is being constantly updated when GPs identify eligible patients. Doctors have been given several tight deadlines to submit details of patients, leading to NHS England’s director of primary care apologising for the way the issue had been handled centrally, according to the magazine Pulse.  

Yesterday, it emerged a local authority chief in the north west had raised concerns about the shielded patients list being withheld from local councils, while there have also been disputes between local GPs and NHSE over which patients should be placed on the shielded patients list. 

Last week, the Welsh government apologised after a “processing error” within the NHS Wales Informatics Service led to around 13,000 letters warning people they were at higher risk of covid-19 being sent to the wrong addresses.