Western Health Trust bosses knew about thousands of backlogged x-rays at Altnagelvin hospital several months before telling their superiors, it’s been revealed.

Western Trust Chief Executive Elaine Way yesterday told a Government watchdog that although the Health and Social Care Board was told of the backlog in July 2010, she “was aware a number of months earlier”.

She told Stormont’s Health Committee that a backlog in written assessments of 18,500 x-rays was reported to the health board after a “critical incident”, believed to be the hospital’s failure to diagnose cancer in an 80 year-old man from Derry.

It was revealed that Health Minister Michael McGimpsey was not told of the backlog until August 2010 while the Health Committee did not learn of the fiasco until it was reported in the media last month.

Ms Way said that the period of the shortest delay on the provision of x-ray assessments during the backlog was seven months while the period of the longest delay was 10.5 months.

“We can learn from how this was handled,” she told the committee.

Ms Way added that the number of cases involved in the backlog amounted to between 12.5% and 15% of cases handled by the radiography department in an average year.

It was also revealed that just seven radiographers were on duty at Altnagelvin at the “peak” of the backlog while the medical academic who carried out a review of the x-ray provision in the hospital had stated that 17 radiographers would match the actual requirement.

John Compton, Chief Executive of the HSCB - who commissioned the recent review into the workings of the Trust - told the meeting that as a result of the findings there would be an “immediate response” including the provision of new CT and MRI scanners for the Derry hospital.

Brendan Devlin, lead radiologist at Altnagelvin, added: “Out of this disastrous situation we can start to see some benefit. If you look again in a year, 18 months, two years, there will be a service we can be proud of.”

During the committee meeting, Derry’s only representative on the watchdog, SDLP MLA Pól Callaghan, led the way on questioning the Trust bosses.

Speaking after the meeting, he told the ‘Journal’: “This is the very same attitude adopted by the Western Trust towards swine flu and that was simply to hide until the very last possible minute when information was finally squeezed out.”

He added: “Did the Trust not think it would be helpful to inform the Board - the body that funds it - that there was a serious problem in terms of an x-ray backlog at Altnagelvin Hospital? This went on for months and months before the Board was told and that is not acceptable to the people affected - it is particularly distressing for those with serious and terminal illnesses.”

Mr Callaghan called on the trust to ensure that an apology be given to each patient affected by the “x-ray fiasco”.