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MPs unite - with caveats - behind NHS Care.data scheme

26/02/14

The main political parties joined forces to insist the troubled NHS database for all GP medical records must go ahead - one week after it was shelved.

The controversy over the harvesting of data from surgeries dominated health questions in the Commons and triggered a grilling by the health select committee.

Labour accused Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt of a "cavalier approach" which had resulted in a "spectacular collapse" in public confidence over the project.

But Hunt hit back, insisting it was the correct decision to give patients the right to opt out - something denied by Labour, in previous data collections - that had required the "pause". He said: "NHS England was absolutely right to have a pause so that we ensure that we give people reassurance. This programme is too important to get wrong,

"Of course we are having a difficult debate, but its purpose is to carry the public with us so that we can go on to make important scientific discoveries."

Hunt said he was still committed to a "data revolution", adding: "We will continue to work hard to ensure that this important scheme goes ahead."

After landing his blows, Andy Burnham, Labour's health spokesman, made clear his party did back the Care.data database with important new safeguards.

Describing it as "an important scheme that needs to be saved", he told Hunt: "I will offer him a solution. If the government work with us to introduce a series of tough new safeguards to protect patients, we will work with the Secretary of State to help rescue this failing plan.

"Those safeguards include tougher penalties for the misuse of data, Secretary of State sign-off on any application to access data, full transparency on organisations granted access, and new opt-out arrangements by phone or online."

Later, in evidence to the committee, Tim Kelsey, national director at NHS England, vowed: "The timetable will be October 1st - from that moment onwards".

ast week, Kelsey bowed to pressure by putting back the start of collection of data until the autumn - admitting more time was needed to convince patients.

In the meantime, NHS England will work to boost public confidence in the scheme and test the quality of the data, on a voluntary basis with a small number of GP practices.

The surprise delay followed widespread criticism that the public have been "left in the dark" over the plans and have not received the leaflets explaining the project. Critics have leapt on the revelation that the records - albeit, anonymised - can also be sold to private health companies and drug manufacturers.

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