The Department of Health has apologised to Labour's health spokesman Andy Burnham over the release of confidential emails he claims were used to smear him, ITV News has learnt.
The Health Secretary Jermey Hunt suggested in a tweet last week that the emails, published in the Daily Mail, showed his predecessor had attempted to cover up failures at the Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals Trust.
Andy Burnham is considering legal action over what he claims was an unprecedented smear. Now, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, Una O'Brien, has written to him saying they should have consulted him before releasing the emails.
"I am sorry that on this occasion, the protocol was not properly observed and I apologise both on behalf of the Department and the CQC for this lapse."
She goes on to say: "My investigations have revealed that this was a genuine oversight on the part of officials but nonetheless unacceptable."
The Conservatives point to emails showing that the Department of Health under Labour tried to stop details emerging of a hospital scandal involving higher-than-normal death rates relating to relate to Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
A Conservative health spokeswoman has said there was "overwhelming evidence that Labour ministers leant on the Care Quality Commission (CQC) watchdog" to "tone down and cover up NHS failure for political purposes".
However, Labour has asked Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to substantiate his claims that Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham hid hospital failings in a "cover up".
"It is high time he (Mr Hunt) focused on his real job and the unfolding A&E crisis instead of orchestrating a smear campaign without evidence," a party spokesman said.
Here is a breakdown of what email data showing the Department of Health under the Labour government attempted to stop details emerging of a hospital scandal contained:
Emails released by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) watchdog under freedom of information laws showed the Department of Health ordered the CQC not to brief the press on an inspector's report into the trust, which found appalling standards of hygiene.
But by then the CQC had already told three national newspapers the report was impending and the story was being published by the Press Association.
The CQC report into Basildon detailed major concerns about unusually high death rate among patients.
Inspectors found blood stains on floors and curtains, blood splattered on trays used to carry equipment and badly soiled mattresses in the A&E department with stains soaked through.
New email data showing the Department of Health under the Labour government attempted to stop details emerging of a hospital scandal makes Andy Burnham's position as Shadow Health Secretary "untenable", according to the Tory MP who instigated the release of the details.
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has denied trying to prevent a hospital failings scandal becoming public knowledge when he was serving as health secretary in 2009.
Emails released by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) watchdog under freedom of information laws showed that the Department of Health under Labour tried to stop details emerging of a hospital scandal involving higher-than-normal death rates.
Jeremy Hunt, the current health secretary, described the emails as "shocking revelations on Andy Burnham's attempts to cover up failing hospitals" but Burnham accused Hunt of launching a "smear campaign without evidence" against him.