Letters: NHS database

Computer theft bodes ill for NHS central database

Wednesday 27 August 2008 00:00

Further to Frank Dunn's letter on data security (26 August), I have been a patient for some months at St George's Hospital, Tooting, where the medical care is first class, but the administration less so.

Recently, in common with 21,000 other patients, I received a letter from the Chief Executive, a Mr Astley, who advised us that our data had been on six portable computers which had been stolen, and explaining how hard they had tried to secure the computers. I immediately replied to their computer department pointing out that secure data should never be held on portable computers, sending a copy to Mr Astley, and sent him detailed instructions on how to deal with secure data in future.

I also wrote to the House of Commons Health Committee, asking them to use their influence to see that the Government would bring in legally enforceable rules to ensure that every department or organisation of any size was required to have a designated security officer responsible for the systems in securing data.

In the case of St George's, I then received a letter from the medical director, a surgeon, telling me, that while my proposed system was "elegant" (it was not, it was crude, as I had no idea of the hospital's geography, or their complement of experienced staff) all data was kept on their server! If it had been there would have been no problem. I was also disturbed that it appeared that their "expert" on securing data was a surgeon.

St George's will not be alone, and therefore there should be no question of having a universal database for medical records until we can ensure rigid compliance with laid-down systems (which to be realistic is never); otherwise, many people will die as a result.

Peter Croggon

London SW16

Kept away from our Olympic heroes

On Monday all the major news outlets dutifully reported BAA's warning to well-wishers wishing to salute the success of Team GB to stay away from Heathrow Airport. The reasons cited varied from "health and safety grounds", to concerns about "disruption to one of the busiest days of the year" to "security considerations".

Not living too far away from the airport, I decided to ignore the warning and head down to what turned out to be an almost-deserted Terminal 5. There I found about 50-60 supporters, some of whom had travelled considerable distances, including a good number of young children, all aching to see their Olympic heroes. Instead, like everyone else, they had to watch, on TV, in T5's arrivals lounge, a homecoming which was actually taking place in the VIP suite – half a mile, but in effect a world, away.

Clearly, given that T5 was about as busy as a sleepy Spanish town at siesta time, there were no health and safety issues to worry about, and the chances of disruption to T5's operations were minimal. So, what security considerations could there have been that would prevent the Beijing Olympians of 2008 being given the same sort of homecoming afforded to their Sydney predecessors? The answer, we soon realised as the footage rolled, was Gordon Brown.

Not content with pressing the flesh throughout the Olympic Village during the Games, the PM had taken it upon himself to bask in the reflected glory of Team GB on their homecoming. Consequently, given that the PM (along with the rest of the political class created by Tony Blair's "anti-terror" legislation), has to be protected from the public, the public had to be denied their chance of saluting their heroes at a time when the country is still buzzing with excitement over their success.

What a tribute to Gordon Brown's uncanny ability to turn gold into base metal.

Paul Redfern

London W8

Joy Mills (letter, 25 August) alleges that Team GB was the correct term, because it appropriately coped with the anomaly of the Isle of Man (and its one athlete). But the main point is that adopting the term "Team GB" was a gross insult to the three athletes from Northern Ireland (and, by implication, to all its population). Northern Ireland is not geographically or politically a part of Great Britain, and never has been. That's why we live in the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

Edward James

London N17

Even our media are muddled about their country's name. On News at Ten (BBC, 24 August) we were informed that thousands of people would turn out to "welcome the arrival of Team GB in the UK". I think Joy Mills is wrong: as a self-governing, Crown possession, the Isle of Man belongs neither to the UK nor GB; maybe it should send its own team to the Olympics, along with the Channel Islands, the Falklands, St Helena, Anguilla, Bermuda, Cayman Is, Virgin Is, Turks and Caicos Is, Pitcairn, Chagos Archipelago and the British Antarctic Territory (winter Olympics?).

David Smith

Clyro, Powys

J W Hart (letter, 26 August) argues that a United States of Europe might have "won" 280 medals. This wouldn't happen, as only three athletes from each representative "nation" can take part in each event, and the chances of member nations agreeing which three must be negligible.

Dave Morgan

Beddington, Surrey

Frequently, sports commentators sympathise with the competitor who comes fourth in an event, especially if they are British. As part of the finale to the London Games, there could be a parade of these "runners up". This would capture the noble British spirit of taking part being as important as gaining a medal.

Peter Erridge

East Grinstead, West Sussex

Have you ever noticed how we only get a 1,800 per cent increase in Olympic gold under a Labour government?

Rob Churchill

Worthing, West Sussex

The fight to legalise homosexuality

It is sad to note the death of Leo Abse, who worked tirelessly for civilised liberal causes in so many fields. My civil partner and I are proud and delighted that we were able to interview him last February. However, it is not quite true to say, as Tam Dalyell did (Obituary, 21 August) that he "finally decriminalised homosexual activity between consenting adults".

He decriminalised some categories of homosexual activity between no more than two men both aged over 21 in a private setting, which was very restrictively defined, behind locked doors among other rules.

The result of accepting these restrictions was that more prosecutions were brought against gay men than had been the case before, and decades of further campaigning were necessary before we got something like equal rights – legally recognised unions, equal age of consent and so on.

Abse, and Lord Arran, who steered the bill through the upper house, were convinced that no more could be steered through Parliament. Many others, notably Antony Grey, whose campaigning through the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the Albany Trust included many unpaid hours working for Abse's campaign, remain convinced that much more could have been achieved with the necessary willpower.

Like many political campaigns, this is a matter of differing views; if a free society needs its Leo Abses, as it does, it also needs its Antony Greys.

Mike Newman

Linthwaite, West Yorkshire

The internet is a snare for juries

Christopher Husbands (letter, 21 August) is wildly optimistic when he asserts that "anyone having even a modest acquaintance with the principles of probability would have been suspicious of the extreme probabilities claimed" by expert witnesses in the cot-death cases. A proper understanding of probabilities is often far from straightforward and, as those cases showed, it is easy to jump to "obvious" but incorrect conclusions.

Juries are chosen at random and it is therefore quite unlikely that any particular jury will include jurors with the ability to conduct their own investigations into the statistical arguments or other technical matters in the case they are trying.

It is also far from clear how Husbands expects that jurors doing their own independent research will find their way to the "wholly respectable" academic journals he refers to without being lured towards more prejudicial materials on the internet.

Jonathan Wallace

Newcastle upon Tyne

Like Dr Husbands, I am concerned that a juror may be placed in jeopardy by conscientiously filling in the gaps left by a court's proceedings. However, is it the purpose of a court to establish the truth?

In an adversarial system the primary task for the protagonists is to present the most convincing case. The jury is charged with making a decision based solely on the evidence as presented and refuted by the contestants. There are rules, designed to safeguard our liberty, about what may be presented in court and how such information may be gathered. Should a jury be permitted to introduce "evidence", there would be no guarantee that the rules were adhered to, nor would there be any possibility of challenging the veracity of the information.

I agree with Dr Husbands that the internet is a source of enlightenment, but it is also a snare for the unwary.

Tony Taylor

Nantwich, Cheshire

Jobs for white middle-class men

Jeremy Paxman need not quake ("Fury as Paxman says middle-class white men have no chance in TV", 26 August). The old boys' network is alive and actually growing in the news media.

The overwhelmingly white male higher echelons, whose disproportionate influence so discolours news output, are only partly concealed by the propensity of news channel bosses to perch attractive young women on the edge of news desks.

Furthermore, according to evidence published by the Sutton Trust, of the top 100 news journalists in Britain, only 14 per cent went to comprehensive schools.

Paxman says he would deter white middle-class men from seeking top jobs in the news media. They should try elsewhere, perhaps politics or law, where ridiculous and unfair recruitment cultures also prevail.

Mark Donne

Editor, Real Fits, London SW1

I read with bemusement Jeremy Paxman's comments on the difficulty middle-class white males have in progressing their careers in television. Perhaps he had not seen the piece in Monday's media section, in which the BBC "showcased" their overseas reporters and bureau chiefs. The 40 accompanying photographs revealed lots of white male faces (class unknown), a smattering of female ones, a couple of Asian ones and no black faces at all.

James Lowe

London SW3

Women jailed for passport fraud

As the director of a small charity working with a large number of clients imprisoned for false documents, I absolutely agree with Alured Darlington (letter 20 August).

Since it is estimated that a prisoner costs up to £100,000 a year to maintain, custodial sentences seem a very expensive method for dealing with some offences. Those in charge of the criminal justice system need to identify those areas where custodial sentences are not just unnecessary but counterproductive. One is passport frauds committed by people from poor countries who use false documents to leave this country or in transit to another country. At present a large percentage of the 4,500 foreign national women congesting the female prison estate are imprisoned for passport fraud.

Except for security concerns, I do not believe these women, or their male counterparts, should be detained in the UK. They are not professional criminals and for most it is a first offence. Their intentions are economic, not criminal. Such offences should be decriminalised until we are able to find the organisers of a trade that affects desperate people.

Olga Heaven

FPWP Hibiscus, London EC1


Dismal idea of fun

A camel is a horse designed by a committee, and a Bank Holiday is a parliament's idea of fun. Now the last one is over, we can at least look forward to better weather.

Trevor Pateman


Barbarous cruelty

I agree with John Bryant (letter, 26 August) about the need to respect animal rights, but don't think he goes far enough. If animal distress is the issue then we should be intervening between the species. What could possibly be more distressing than being eaten alive? It's quite simply barbaric.

Rob Hatcher


Language skills

I find the comments of the CBI's Director of Education and Skills, on the need to learn foreign languages, very narrow in focus (letter, 26 August). Were she to visit a building site and peruse the health and safety literature, she might see that businesses need language skills at all levels, not merely for the acquisition of new business. To deal effectively on the site I worked on last year, one needed Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Urdu, Hindi and Romanian. Not a Latin, Spanish or French speaker in sight.

Nigel Cubbage

Merstham, Surrey

Crying shame

In your article on crying and tears (Extra, 22 August) you state: "The aqueous layer contains proteins and enzymes designed to fight bacterial and fungal infections." I hope that this is not the first step of an insidious campaign to introduce Intelligent Design to your readers. The proteins and enzymes were not designed at all. They evolved, of course, and have been retained because of their benefits.

Michael Signy

Wymondham, Norfolk

Errant apostrophes

I have always felt that a department store in Bristol would win any errant apostrophe competition (letter, 26 August) with its sign in the lift announcing that the restaurant sold Tea's and Gateau'x. Sadly, for it always brightened my day, it has been removed.

John Harvey


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