GPs 'dead in the water' as NHS email system grinds to a halt

GPs across England struggled to access emails on Monday - potentially delaying referrals and access to key clinical information - after a test message was sent by mistake to hundreds of thousands of NHS staff.

Individual GPs told GPonline that they had been unable to access test results and other information they needed to look after their patients, while GP leaders warned that emails had been 'very difficult to access' and that access to important information about local clinical pathways could have been delayed.

NHS Digital issued a statement admitting that email accounts had been operating slowly because an NHS Mail user had set up and messaged an email distribution list that 'inadvertently included everyone on the NHS Mail list'.

Subsequent emails from users who hit 'reply all' added to the huge surge in email traffic that stalled the system, GPonline understands.

NHS Digital has confirmed that 840,000 email addresses received by the rogue email - meaning the vast majority of the over 1m staff who work for the NHS were affected. Emails sent within the service are 'protected to UK government standards' to guarantee confidentiality and security according to NHS Digital - but the service could do little about a 'bug in the supplier's system' that allowed this blunder by an authorised user.

GP email access

One GP in London told GPonline he had asked his CCG to declare a major incident because of the problem. ‘We are dead in the water,' he said. ‘We can’t email anyone.’

The GP said he had managed to use the Choose and Book referral system after a few attempts but had ultrasound results and other clinical work he was unable to access on the system.

He said the recent drive by the NHS to channel more work through email rather than faxes or other systems meant that the problem had had a big effect on practice work.

‘It is scary that the whole system can be crippled like that,’ he said. ‘How the hell are we supposed to do anything?’

GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline: 'It's been very difficult to access [the NHS Mail service] today with a spam "test" message filling the inbox. I'm not sure what the cause is but it is a significant problem.'

Patient care

He had personally not been unable to access information needed for patient care, but said there was 'certainly a potential for that' for other GPs. He said GPs may also be missing or have delayed access to 'important information about local clinical pathways'.

Another GP told GPonline he thought the problem could add time to every GP’s workload as the email system ground to a halt.

An NHS Digital spokesperson said: 'Some users have experienced short delays in the NHS Mail system this morning. Action has been taken to resolve this issue.

'A number of email accounts have been operating slowly. This was due to an NHS Mail user setting up an email distribution list which, because of a bug in the supplier's system, inadvertently included everyone on the NHS Mail list.

'As soon as we became aware of the issue, we deleted the distribution list, so that no-one else could respond to it. We anticipate the issue will be rectified very soon.'

Photo: JH Lancy

Additional reporting: Neil Roberts

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