THE deaths of hundreds of hospital patients, left without food or water in filthy conditions, exposed an urgent need to change the culture of Britain's National Health Service, a report has said.
Between 400 and 1,200 patients are estimated to have died needlessly at Stafford Hospital, in central England, between January 2005 and March 2009, in one of the worst scandals to hit the NHS since it was founded in 1948.
"There were patients so desperate for water that they were drinking from dirty flower vases," British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament yesterday.
Describing events at Stafford Hospital as "a despicable catalogue of clinical and managerial failures", Mr Cameron apologised to all the families affected on behalf of the government and the country.
The author of the 3,000-page report, lawyer Robert Francis, said: "This is a story of appalling and unnecessary suffering of hundreds of people. They were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety," he said.
The NHS, which provides medical care for free at the point of delivery, is an institution so dear to British hearts that it was proudly showcased to the world in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London last summer.
But the harrowing details of what happened at Stafford have shocked the nation.
"Elderly and vulnerable patients were left unwashed, unfed and without fluids. They were deprived of dignity and respect. Some patients had to relieve themselves in their beds when they were offered no help to get to the bathroom," said Mr Francis.
He said some patients were left in excrement-stained sheets and some who could not eat or drink without help did not receive it.
Medicines were prescribed but not given.
"Many will find it difficult to believe that all this could occur in an NHS hospital," he said.
Mr Cameron said the report's findings of systemic failure in the NHS meant that "we can't say with confidence that failings of care are limited to one hospital".
He said he would create a new post of chief inspector of hospitals and enforce a new regime of hospital inspections by the autumn.