Concerns over plans to delay NHS letters

Patient safety could be put “at risk” if the delivery of billions of letters are delayed, health leaders have warned.

Slowing down deliveries could lead to patients missing vital appointments, which could not only impact on patients but also impact the NHS as it deals with the “fall-out”, the group said.

Officials are seeking views on how to update the postal service, which could potentially include delaying bulk mail letters – which include NHS appointment letters, court documents, fines or new bank cards.

Switching from a two-day service to a three-day service could save Royal Mail up to £650 million, according to a new consultation by the regulator Ofcom.

But Healthwatch England, NHS Providers, the Patients Association and National Voices warned: “When appointment letters and other communications from the NHS are delayed, patient safety is put at risk, while NHS teams must deal with the fall-out of missed appointments.”

A letter from the organisations, which has been sent to Ofcom, NHS England, Health Secretary Victoria Atkins and business minister Kevin Hollinrake, continues: “For the patients themselves, we know that the impact of missing appointments can include ongoing pain, worsening symptoms, poor mental health, and disrupted sleep.

“Missed appointments, lost referrals and other communication failures can also lead to people losing their place on NHS waiting lists, often having to go back to square one.”

The letter, which has been published online, continues: “Plans to further delay posting of letters will undoubtedly make the issues highlighted in this letter more widespread.

“We ask that the proposals are scrapped and priority is given to ensuring that patients letters already delayed arrive on time.”

A Royal Mail spokesperson said: “Ensuring that we can provide a reliable service for NHS letters is at the forefront of our mind when considering any potential reform to the Universal Service, and we are engaging with a number of NHS organisations to discuss the various options set out in Ofcom’s consultation.

“Ofcom’s report demonstrates that when letter volumes have fallen from 20 billion a year to only seven billion, reform is urgently needed to protect the future of the one-price-goes-anywhere Universal Service.

“We recognise that timely delivery of NHS letters is vitally important, and we look forward to engaging with Healthwatch, NHS Providers, the Patients Association and National Voices to find the right solutions for delivery of vital NHS communications as part of the process.”

A spokesperson for Ofcom added: “At this stage, we’ve not made any proposals to change the universal postal service. We’ve set out evidence suggesting it risks becoming unsustainable if we don’t take action, as people send fewer letters and receive more parcels.

“We have laid out some potential options so there can be a national discussion about its long-term future. We want stakeholders to submit their evidence and views on this, including consumers and senders of bulk mail such as NHS letters, and discuss with us the potential impacts on people and businesses.”