London: The government refused to scrap a giant NHS computer system yesterday despite admitting there was a "risk" of medical records being lost.
Doctors, patient groups and the Conservatives urged a rethink of the "Connecting for Health" database after more data was lost in the post, including the details of 160,000 London children.
The system, being built at a cost of billions, will hold medical files on 50 million NHS patients, including confidential records of people's illnesses, sexual health and even affairs.
The chief executive of the NHS yesterday admitted files could be lost. "Yes, there is always a risk in this," said David Nicholson. But he insisted that security was "way beyond" that used in internet banking, which made the risk very low.
"We are listening to what people are saying about security and I think we have a level of security being built into the system," he said.
The official data watchdog warned of "catastrophic" consequences if medical records were lost.
Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said a better security culture was needed before patient records went on-line.
Reputations at stake
"Any mass loss of data from a centralised database would be catastrophic, because medical information is particularly sensitive," he said. He warned of "political reputations at stake" if the database leaked, and said he had already told the government about his concerns.
The national database is at the heart of Labour's NHS reforms, which envisage doctors being able to download the full medical history of any patient who walks in off the street.
Taxpayers face ballooning costs, however. It was meant to cost Â£6.2 billion (Dh45.9) and launch in 2010 but muddles have seen estimates shoot up to between Â£18 billion and Â£32 billion.
Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's GPs' committee, said the government needed to get more serious about security before the national patient database opened. "Patients need to be absolutely confident that the information that is held securely cannot be lost in some haphazard way," he told the BBC.
Lack of accountability
Joyce Robins, co-director of the patient support group Patient Care, also urged ministers to reconsider the Connecting for Health programme. "Given the carelessness and lack of accountability in the NHS, this could be the end of patient confidentiality," she said. "It may be only a matter of time before records fall into the wrong hands and we see not only our ex-directory phone numbers posted on the internet but the record of our abortions, HIV and Aids status."
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley called for a redesign to improve security. "They appear to have looked at only the benefits of such a system, and not at the risks involved," he warned.
Loss of discs
Concern over poor data security follows the loss of discs containing details of 25 billion taxpayers and three million learner drivers.
The latest blunders cover around 168,000 patients from nine separate NHS trusts around England. Records carried on memory sticks, discs and a stolen laptop were among the losses.
In one incident, names and addresses of 160,000 children went missing when City and Hackney Primary Care Trust sent a disc in the post to St Leonards Hospital in east London. It said the data had been encrypted to an "extremely high level of security".