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Burnham denies 'cover-up' charge
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has denied ordering a "cover-up" of hospital failings and accused Jeremy Hunt of launching a "smear campaign without evidence" against him.
Emails released under freedom of information laws showed the Department of Health under Labour tried to stop details emerging of a hospital scandal involving higher-than-normal death rates.
Mr Burnham - who was health secretary at the time - was recorded as being "furious" when news leaked of poor standards of care in November 2009, months before the general election.
Mr Hunt, who now holds the post in the coalition Government, seized on the emails as "s hocking revelations on Andy Burnham's attempts to cover up failing hospitals".
"We're legislating to make sure this can never happen again," he wrote on Twitter.
But Mr Burnham insisted they showed only that he was concerned that disclosure rules had been broken and challenged Mr Hunt to substantiate his claims or apologise.
"It is impossible to see how you can claim this mounted to a cover-up," he told him in a letter.
"I therefore ask you, by the end of Friday, to provide me with evidence to substantiate your assertion.
"If you fail to provide such evidence, I will require a full retraction and public apology. If that is not forthcoming I will consider further action."
The emails, released by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) watchdog following a request by Tory MP Steve Barclay, relate to Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
They showed the DoH 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.
They also found equipment being used repeatedly that should only be used once and resuscitation room equipment that was past its use-by date.
The CQC "arguably sat on a highly sensitive safety issue for six months before informing patients and the public", according to the emails from senior CQC staff to DoH officials. They added: "Defending material which is not defensible is always a bad place to be."
Mr Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire, said Mr Burnham's position as shadow health secretary was "untenable"as he was shown " putting pressure on the regulator to water down its concerns".
But Mr Burnham insisted the emails showed only that "my concern stemmed from the fact that CQC/DH rules had been broken.
"Further, the note records that I ordered a press release, in accordance with proper process, be issued later that day."
A Labour spokesman said: " 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 Conservative health spokeswoman said there was "overwhelming evidence that Labour ministers leant on the quality watchdog to tone down and cover up NHS failure for political purposes".
"First, the former chair of the CQC Baroness Young stated under oath that they 'were under huge pressure not to criticise the government ... we were under more pressure when Andy Burnham became minister because of the politics'.
"Second, when reports of shocking care failures at Basildon hospital emerged, Andy Burnham wrote to the CQC instructing them that their job is to 'restore public confidence in the NHS'.
"That is not the job of the hospital watchdog - their role is to expose poor care.
"Third, Roger Davidson, former head of media at the CQC, testified under oath that 'there were conversations between ministers and the CQC to the effect that the CQC would not cause any trouble in the run-up to purdah. The message that we don't want bad news infected the whole organisation'.
"Fourth, CQC bosses stated that their annual report would be 'largely positive' and would not present critical data 'given the political environment', following a meeting with Andy Burnham's junior minister in which he told the CQC that 'anything you do is political'.
"This was at the same time that evidence was emerging of high death rates at the 11 hospitals currently in special measures which were not acted upon.
"The case is strong and conclusive.
"Instead of flailing around for excuses and continuing the denial that meant hospital failures went unchecked for so long, Andy Burnham must apologise to patients for the awful things that took place on his watch."