One of Scotland’s biggest health boards has apologised after failing to inform nearly 5000 patients that they would not be treated on time.

NHS Lothian, already under fire over delays to the opening of a flagship hospital, compounded the mistake by sending ‘sorry’ letters to patients who had died waiting for care.

Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, said: “There’s no excuse for getting basic communication so badly wrong and it shows a lack of consideration that apology letters were sent to patients who had in fact died.”

The board, which serves a population of around 800,000 on a budget of nearly £1.5bn, has attracted negative publicity over a series of shortcomings.

NHS Lothian was last year revealed to be the only board which failed to meet all eight national performance targets in 2017/18.

It was also reported that 36,799 people waited more than four hours at accident and emergency last year.

The same board is now under pressure over a failure in relation to patients who were not seen within the 12-week treatment time guarantee.

Boards are obliged to apologise to patients in this category, but a minute of the NHS Lothian Audit and Risk committee revealed that the board discovered last year that a large number of letters had not been sent, a mistake that was rectified in January.

The paper noted: “There were a number of negative responses from patients receiving the late letters, including some from relatives of patients who had since died. Letters of apology had since been sent out to these relatives.”

It is understood that 4,953 letters were sent in January to patients who should have received the correspondence between July and November last year. Twelve letters were sent to patients who had passed away.

Jacquie Campbell, chief officer of acute services at NHS Lothian, said:

“I would like to apologise to the patients and their relatives who were affected by this regrettable technical error.

“In July 2018, it was identified that a data error had occurred, that resulted in a delay in apology letters being sent to patients regarding their wait for treatment. These letters should be automatically sent if a patient had or was waiting longer than 12 weeks for their treatment.

“Once the data error was corrected these letters were generated and sent to patients in batches when they were long overdue. In some cases, regrettably, the letters were received by relatives after the patient died.

“The incident was taken extremely seriously and an immediate investigation was launched. As a result a number of actions have been taken to improve the system and reduce the risk of a repeat of a similar incident.”

News of the lapse comes after the Scottish Government blocked the opening of the new NHS Lothian-run Sick Children’s hospital in Edinburgh.

The £150m facility was due to open in July, but last minute inspections uncovered problems with the ventilation and Health Secretary Jeane Freeman intervened.

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said:

“This is clearly a major error which won’t fill patients with confidence. It’s not a good period for NHS Lothian with the ongoing delays at the Sick Kids and parking issues at the region’s biggest hospital.

“While not a clinical mistake, this kind of thing just compounds the feeling that the health board, along with the SNP government which is in overall control of health, simply isn’t in control of things.”

Lennon added: “It’s bad enough that thousands of people in Lothian are being denied their legal right to NHS treatment without this admin shambles adding further distress to patients and their families.”

“The lengthy waiting times are affecting all health boards in Scotland after years of SNP mismanagement and this is the latest example of a health board struggling to do its day job. NHS Lothian is facing a number of risks and the board should be clear with the Scottish Government about the support it needs.”