An IT blunder involving a shared email address sparked fears that key documents in the contaminated blood inquiry had been destroyed and a government apology.
The Cabinet Office is under fire after admitting an instruction “to preserve all information relevant” to the probe failed to reach any of 22 Whitehall departments.
The mistake was only uncovered after a second attempt to send the instruction more than two months later, David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister, admitted.
Two agencies - HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the Legal Aid Agency - are still trawling their records to find out whether crucial documents have been destroyed, MPs were told. Labour said the episode, after criticism of delays in setting up the inquiry, raised “serious questions about the government's ability to handle this extremely sensitive and important issue”.
An estimated 2,800 people are thought to have died as a result of the NHS giving blood infected with HIV and Hepatitis C to patients throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
A public inquiry is now underway into how the scandal occurred, after Theresa May has called it an “appalling tragedy which should never have happened”.
In a letter to the inquiry, Mr Lidington said the first email, telling departments not to destroy any documents about infected blood, was sent by the Cabinet Office on 3 April, via a shared mailbox.
However, the sender did not realise that the mailbox, having been set up by the National Archives, “is only effective from National Archives IT addresses”.
He or she sent it again on 11 June and, this time, “suspected that the notice had not reached its intended addressees, and resent it successfully on the same day using individual email addresses”.
Mr Lidington said the civil servant had “reasonably assumed that the address would work from any government IT account”.
“On neither the 3 April nor 11 June did the sender receive an automated notice that the email had not been successfully delivered. Such a message would have immediately made the problem apparent,” he wrote.
The letter added: “We will discuss with colleagues in KIM [Cabinet Office Knowledge and Information Management] and the National Archives measures we can put in place to ensure such an error does not occur in future.
“This was an honest administrative mistake, but it should not have happened.
“I would like to formally apologise to the inquiry for this error, but most importantly I want to apologise to those affected and infected; the Cabinet Office inquiry sponsor team takes its responsibilities very seriously, and we will learn the lessons from this so that we avoid such errors occurring in future.”
Mr Lidington said “all of the key departments have confirmed to me that no records relevant to the inquiry have been lost because of this”.
But he acknowledged that “because of their size and the complexity of some of the records they hold, HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the Legal Aid Agency are continuing to work to provide this assurance”.