Health Secretary wants answers on Royal Mail cuts plan amid fears over NHS letters

Victoria Atkins said the postal operator 'still had a critical part to play', despite efforts to move the NHS into a digital age
Victoria Atkins said Royal Mail 'still had a critical part to play' despite efforts to move the NHS into a digital age - Heathcliff O'Malley

The Health Secretary has demanded answers from Royal Mail over its plans to cut second-class deliveries amid concerns over the effects on NHS letters.

The postal operator has been asked to urgently explain whether it has considered the impact that its proposals to reduce second-class deliveries to three days a week will have on NHS patients.

Victoria Atkins intervened less than a week after The Telegraph revealed widespread concern among NHS chiefs and patient groups about the danger to patient safety if vital medical letter deliveries were delayed.

In a letter to Martin Seindenberg, the Royal Mail chief executive, seen by The Telegraph, Ms Atkins warned that “communication by post remains an essential mechanism” for the NHS to use when engaging with patients.

She asked “as a matter of urgency” for Mr Seindenberg to explain the proposals Royal Mail has made to regulator Ofcom to cut second-class letter deliveries to every other day.

A source close to the Health Secretary said the postal operator “still had a critical part to play”, despite efforts to move the NHS into a digital age.

“Victoria believes that everyone should have equity in accessing healthcare,” said the source. “As we move to digitise the NHS we must take people with us, and the Royal Mail has a critical part to play in that.”

NHS leaders raised fears about the risk that delayed letters were already having on patient safety amid the proposals to reduce second-class deliveries.

As many as 2.5 million of the eight million missed NHS hospital appointments each year are because of medical letters arriving too late, costing the NHS around £300 million.

Analysis by Healthwatch England, a think tank, found that more than two thirds of patients are still reliant on NHS post and three per cent had missed an appointment because the letter with its details arrived after it was supposed to have taken place.

Ms Atkins wrote: “While the NHS is now able to use different communication channels for notifying patients of important developments and appointments, communication by post remains an essential mechanism for the operation of the service.

“I would like to understand – as a matter of urgency – what consideration you have given in developing your submission to the potential impact on NHS services and on patients, particularly those patients who do not have access to or a preference for electronic communication.

“While I recognise the commercial imperatives you are working to and the wider social and economic changes that drive those imperatives, you will understand the importance of the part the universal postal service continues to play in our national life and in supporting services such as the NHS.”

The NHS sends about 125 million letters to patients each year, with details of appointments, test results and treatment plans, at a cost of about £1 each.

The Royal Mail delivers around seven billion letters a year, and the NHS remains one of its biggest customers.

The service is grappling with a shake-up of postal regulations as it contends with a slump in letter-sending that has pushed its finances to the brink. The company lost £319 million in the first half of the financial year.

Sir Julian Hartley, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said the Royal Mail needed to “work closely” with hospitals to ensure changes and their consequences were understood.

“Although the NHS is increasingly moving towards more digital ways of working, many patients still rely on post for updates on care and treatment, often because they don’t have access to or prefer not to use digital communication,” he said.

“A punctual, reliable post service is therefore crucial to ensure timely updates for patients. Any reduction to that would be a real concern.”

Rachel Power, the chief executive of Patients Association, an advocacy group said: “Timely letter delivery is crucial to maintaining an inclusive healthcare system that doesn’t leave anyone behind,” she said.

Louise Ansari, the chief executive of Healthwatch England, said the think tank had “heard worrying stories from people frustrated by the late arrival of crucial NHS post”.

She added: “When appointment letters, test results 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.”

Jacob Lant, the chief executive of National Voices, a health charity, said “NHS mail is a basic essential and must remain a priority”, adding: “Any delays in delivering letters can create anxiety for patients and if appointments are missed it can cause a dangerous disruption to people’s care.”

A Royal Mail spokesman said: “The NHS is made up of hundreds of different trusts and thousands of GPs as well as other services, each with varied requirements. We will continue to offer a choice of service levels and prices to suit their needs. We are working with a range of NHS bodies to explore options for time-sensitive medical letters as part of our proposals.”