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NHS accused of 'burying' damning child cancer report after patients unnecessarily 'died in agony'

Henry Bodkin
Alice Mason died aged two - Heathcliff O'Malley

NHS bosses have been accused of “burying” a damning report into child cancer services commissioned following complaints that patients were “dying in agony”.

Completed in 2015, the document highlights failings at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, one of the UK’s flagship cancer organisations.

It found that, despite being supposedly a centre of excellence, children admitted for cancer treatment were routinely transferred between hospitals to get the care they needed.

Compiled by Professor Mike Stephens, the report was commissioned after a coroner found “astonishing” failures in the care of a two-year-old girl, Alice Mason, leading to her suffering irreversible brain damage and dying in 2011.

It recommended a radical shake-up of the Marsden’s services.

The document was never made public, however, and yesterday (Wednesday) the former NHS medical director for London, Dr Andy Mitchell, accused the head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, and Cally Palmer, England’s National Cancer Director, of suppressing its publication.

Ms Palmer is also the chief executive of the Royal Marsden.

Dr Mitchell told the Health Service Journal (HJS): “I can’t imagine any other individuals having the power and influence to be able to stop this report moving forward.”

NHS England has denied that its then medical director, Sir Bruce Keogh, was improperly leaned on and said the report remained unpublished because it made “implausible suggestions” which would have forced children with cancer to travel further for care.

But Gareth Mason, Alice’s father, said: “To write a report, shelve it and not debate it, that is a cover-up [and] it has left children since Alice and danger, and the Marsden won’t acknowledge that.

“There is a clear need for a debate.

“Why are they so frightened to talk about this.”

The controversy surrounds the performance of a so-called “shared care system”, with the Marsden’s Sutton site forming part of a network for South London, Surrey, Sussex and Kent.

Critics say the format meant children were transferred between sites more regularly and than they should have been, and were put in danger because information was not properly shared.

Rosalind and Gareth Mason criticised the report's surpression Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

In 2009 eight-year-old Daniel Strong suffered unnecessary agony in the final weeks of his life because of “disorganisation” in South London’s cancer services, according to his parents, who also criticised the decision not to publish the report.

The document recommended that a smaller number of better equipped paediatric oncology units should replace the existing format.

HSJ reported it had seen emails between NHS England staff in 2016 speculating that the “supposed “cover-up”” may become the story in itself”.

One reportedly included the phrase: “There is the potential for this to blow up in our faces.”

A spokesman for NHS England said last night: “The draft report from four years ago made implausible suggestions that would have meant the closure of world class children’s cancer services and forced thousands of families to travel considerable distances to access care.

“What’s more, services at the Royal Marsden have since been independently inspected and assessed as providing both safe and outstanding cancer care.

“The independent cancer taskforce also looked at these issues and as a result there is now an open consultation underway where different clinical opinions can be put forward for further consideration.”

A spokesman for the Royal Marsden said patient safety incidents are currently “among the lowest in the country”.

He added: ““All paediatric cancer centres across the country work with a number of shared care units to manage patient care. Very sadly, two serious incidents occurred in 2009 and 2011 both as a result of the management of shared care pathways between units and the centre.”