At first glance, the Government's urgent attempts to clarify the risks of potentially faulty breast implants look like welcome progress. That such efforts look near impossible because of the woeful under-regulation of Britain's £2.3bn cosmetic surgery industry is more appalling even than the sale of cheap, inferior implants.
As many as 40,000 British women have implants manufactured by Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP) from what the French company now admits was industrial-grade silicone. Not only are there grave health implications if the devices leak, the cheaper PIP models may also be more prone to do so. So when the UK's largest chain of cosmetic surgery clinics revealed that its records showed PIP implants rupturing seven times more often than official figures suggested, efforts to establish the extent of the risks affected women are facing rightly shot to the top of the Health Secretary's agenda. All well and good. Except that there is, in fact, no way to reach a reliable figure.
In theory, all clinics are to report problem implants to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. But because the system is voluntary, many cases slip through the net. Hence the disparities between the official 1 per cent rupture rate, the 7 per cent reported by the Transform clinic chain, and the 5 per cent recorded in France, where the problems first surfaced.
The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons is now calling for a national register of all breast implants, with a mandatory requirement that clinics report any subsequent ruptures, in order to clean up an industry it likens to the Wild West. Absolutely right. The truly shocking aspect of the PIP scandal is that it could have been allowed to happen in the first place.
Rightly or wrongly, thousands of people choose to have cosmetic surgery every year, some of it highly invasive. That the industry is not regulated as strictly as the wider health sector is grossly remiss. Although links between PIP implants and cancer have not been proven, women with ruptured devices have suffered horrific physical problems and thousands more are now living in fear. The Government has a duty to ensure such a situation can never arise again.