'We'll look at all the evidence', says Jeremy Hunt, after reports opiate syringes may have killed thousands

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has pledged to "look at all the evidence" after it was reported that thousands of elderly patients may have died prematurely because of cheap, faulty syringe pumps in a scandal described as "one of the biggest cover-ups" in NHS history.

According to the Sunday Times, a whistleblower has alleged that decision makers on the panel of the inquiry into hundreds of deaths at Gosport War Memorial Hospital "ignored" evidence of fatalities caused by the devices because they feared a national scandal.

The newspaper reports that the pumps, or drivers, used in the NHS for decades, led to the rapid infusion of dangerous doses of drugs into the bloodstream and made the behaviour of Dr Jane Barton - in charge of prescribing medicine at Gosport - even more dangerous than first thought.

Mr Hunt said "urgent advice" was issued about syringe drivers in 2010 and that NHS hospitals stopped using them by 2015.

A Sunday Times investigation found deaths linked to the devices continued until at least 2013.

In a statement, Smiths Medical, the makers of the syringe drivers said: “Smiths Medical notes the recent comment in relation to its MS 16A and MS 26 syringe drivers.

"We take any potential issue with our products incredibly seriously and will be fully investigating these allegations.”

Responding to the Sunday Times report, Mr Hunt said: "The Gosport Panel led by Bishop James Jones has been absolutely categorical that they don't believe that syringe drivers were the main issue at Gosport.

"They think some other issues, some really terrible issues, were the cause of the problems. But there is a bigger question about how the NHS reacted when we knew these syringe drivers were dangerous.

"Urgent advice was sent out as far back as 2010 and the information I have is that they were taken out of use by 2015. But we'll obviously look at all the evidence there is and make sure we're doing everything we can to keep patients safe."

According to the Sunday Times, the Gosport inquiry was aware that detectives had questioned Barton and other staff about the syringe drivers in 2003, when one doctor admitted they were "totally confusing" and "really dangerous".

The newspaper reports that the admission is in 43,000 documents put online last week when the inquiry gave its verdict on hundreds of deaths at Gosport. But the report - which is 192,000 words long - deals with the syringes in two sentences, the newspaper says.

A Department of Health whistleblower told the Sunday Times the issue of the pumps was "buried" after senior members of the inquiry realised its implications for the NHS.

The source added that a national helpline and a no-fault compensation fund would need to be set up if the full scandal emerged.

The Gosport War Memorial Hospital in Hampshire. Credit: PA

When asked who gave that warning and whether he knew about it, Mr Hunt said: "I didn't know about it and I think we have to respect the fact this is an independent panel led by Bishop James Jones who campaigned for justice for the Hillsborough families for very many years.

"This is someone who has spent his life taking on the British establishment and he's absolutely clear that they had a free hand to look at anything they wanted and if they thought there was an issue with the syringe drivers I know they would have said so."

He added: "I think the specific allegation in the Sunday Times today is that the Gosport panel somehow deliberately swept this issue under the carpet, that has been categorically denied and as I say I think we have to take the word of that panel and Bishop James Jones for that."

Former Care Minister at the time the investigation into the deaths at Gosport Hospital was launched, Normal Lamb has also called for the allegations over the syringe pumps to be investigated.

"We need to understand the full facts of this and as quickly as possible," the North Norfolk MP said.

"If there has been a failure to act on the part of those who were aware of this then we need to know that, but this is dealing with such sensitive territory - with the care of people at the end of life - that we owe it to families to ensure that we've learnt lessons and that everything comes out in terms of what has happened in the past."

The Lib Dem MP branded claims that concerns had been raised about the syringe pumps as early as 1996, but they remained in use, "extraordinary".

He continued: "It looks like a very delayed reaction to concerns.

"I guess that the Gosport Report exposes more generally that when concerns are raised in the NHS that there isn't a culture where people are listened to, that too often people are closed down, treated as if they're stupid, that they haven't got anything important to say.

"We need to get to a point where families are always involved where serious allegations are raised, and that we get to the bottom of those concerns quickly and never again must we have a situation where for years and years families go through trauma without knowing what happened to their loved ones."