Jeremy Hunt has admitted "pockets" of dangerously substandard care may still exist. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
The health secretary fears that poor care in the NHS could lead to a repeat of the scandal at Mid Staffordshire hospital trust, where hundreds of patients died.
In a statement to Monday night's BBC Panorama, Jeremy Hunt admitted that "pockets" of dangerously substandard care may still exist in both the NHS and social care system, despite the huge outcry over the deaths at Stafford Hospital.
A public inquiry into the scandal, chaired by Robert Francis QC, is due to report early in he new year. The NHS regulator at the time of the scandal, the Healthcare Commission, estimated that between 400 and 1,200 patients may have died because of what a previous inquiry called "appalling" care at Stafford hospital between 2005 and 2008.
Hunt said: "Whilst failings in care at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust may have shocked many, we cannot say with confidence that some of those failings do not exist in pockets elsewhere in the NHS and social care system."
His concern reflects growing anxiety among senior NHS figures and organisations including the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) that the conditions the NHS currently finds itself in – especially with many hospital trusts laying off staff to cut costs – could lead to what they fear most – "another Mid Staffs".
Last week RCN chief executive and general secretary Dr Peter Carter told the Guardian that "If NHS organisations continue shrinking their workforce then patient care will inevitably suffer". He blamed the service having to make £20bn of efficiency savings by 2015 a plan known as the Nicholson Challenge" after NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson, who devised it, initially with the Labour government.
Many NHS and health union leaders privately warn that it is damaging the service just as the same time as staff are having to cope with a rising tide of patients being admitted to hospital because of the ageing population and rising numbers of people with long-term conditions such as cancer and diabetes.
Hunt has declared making quality of care as important as quality of treatment one of his top priorities. Last week he announced that hospitals may start receiving Ofsted-style inspections as an extra way of ascertaining how they are performing in key areas. He commissioned a leading NHS expert, Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust health think-tank, who was a member of David Cameron's now disbanded Downing Street "kitchen cabinet" last year on health policy, to investigate the viability of the plan.
The NHS's financial squeeze and rising demand for its services means staff are more likely to make mistakes, an ex-chief executive of two NHS hospital trusts told Panorama. "Most hospitals are now having more and more patients coming through the door. The money is at a standstill if not reducing. The number of staff are therefore at the same level", said Dr Mike Williams.
"They're having to do more work and work harder and faster. The research is very clear that where staff have to work extremely hard, and overwork, they are much more likely to make mistakes", added Williams, who is now a senior research fellow at Exeter University Business School and has a special interest in patient safety.
Panorama also reveals NHS figures which show that unsafe care led to the death of 2,875 hospital patients in England last year and 7,585 others being injured. The data were collected by the NHS's National Reporting and Learning System, which was part of the recently-disbanded National Patient Safety Agency watchdog.