THE Department of Health has been accused of a "gross failure of quality control" after a North-East woman died during a routine operation.

Solicitor Richard Follis told an inquest in Middlesbrough he had come to that conclusion after discovering staff at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust found many disposable surgical instruments were faulty.

The Government ordered all ear, nose and throat surgeons to switch to disposable instruments during 2001 because of fears that surgery could spread the human form of mad cow disease, vCJD.

Despite complaints about poor quality equipment and growing evidence that surgeons were finding it difficult to use the new instruments, the Department of Health insisted that single-use instruments be used to remove tonsils and adenoids.

It was only after the death of Elaine Basham on November 15, ten days after a supposedly routine operation to have her tonsils removed at the former North Riding Infirmary in Middlesbrough, that an alert was issued telling surgeons to revert to the re-usable, traditional instruments.

Miss Basham, 33, from Loftus, east Cleveland, had to be returned to the operating theatre after suffering "torrential" bleeding from her nose and mouth.

Despite efforts to save her, she suffered three heart attacks before dying of multiple organ failure.

Mr Follis quoted a letter from Lesley Graham, acting supplies manager at the North Tees and Hartlepool trust, to the NHS Purchase and Supplies Agency (PASA) in 2001, complaining that surgeons were having to open up "two to three sets" of disposable instruments before finding acceptable sets.

Grant Bates, secretary of the British Association of Otolaryngologists, Head and Neck Surgeons (BAOHNS), said: "Usually, the quality was very poor. They were clumsy, we had lots of problems with them."

The inquest continues.