RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said she was 'shocked' to hear that hundreds of thousands of women had been denied breast screening - and warned that the workload implications for GP practices could be 'significant'.
Mr Hunt told MPs on Wednesday that as many as 270 women's lives may have been cut short by the screening blunder. In response to a query from former GP and House of Commons health select committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston, Mr Hunt pledged to issue guidance to GPs on how to manage patients who may have missed out on screening.
He told MPs: 'I wish to inform the house of a serious failure that has come to light in the NHS breast screening programme in England. THe NHS breast screening programme is overseen by Public Health England (PHE) and is one of the most comprehensive in the world. It screens over 2m people a year with women aged 50-70 receiving a screen every three years up to their 71st birthday.
'However, earlier this year PHE analysis of trial data from the service found that there was a computer algorithm failure dating back to 2009. The latest estimate I have received from PHE is that as a result of this between 2009 and the start of 2018 an estimated 450,000 women aged between 68 and 71 were not invited to their final breast screening.'
The health secretary said he could not be certain at this stage whether anyone had come to harm as a result of the failings, but that he had ordered a full inquiry to uncover the full impact.
'Our current best estimate is that there may be between 135 and 270 women who had their lives shortened as a result. I am advised that it is unlikely to be more than this range and may be considerably less. However, tragically there are likely to be some people in this group who would have been alive today if this failure had not happened.'
Problems with the screening system came to light during an upgrade to IT systems, the health secretary told MPs. A total of 309,000 women who missed out on screening and are still alive will be offered follow-up screening, the government has said.
Professor Stokes-Lampard said: 'The national breast screening programme has potentially saved thousands of lives since its inception – last year alone, over 18,000 cancers were detected as a result of the programme, which might not have been detected as early otherwise.
'We are shocked to learn that hundreds of thousands of women in England have missed out on their opportunity for breast screening – and the implications for GPs and our teams will potentially be significant, as patients seek reassurance and to find out where they go from here.'
She said the government's priority should not be to apportion blame, but to invite women affected for screening and ensure that capacity was in place to cope with any additional demand.
'In the meantime, we urge women not to panic and await further information,' she said. 'We understand that PHE will be in touch with any women affected by the end of May.
'GPs will be advised about this at the same time as patients, so if patients are worried, we would encourage them not to contact their GP about this matter in the first instance but to contact the dedicated national helpline that has been set up – 0800 169 2692 – or to look on the NHS Choices website for more information.'