GOSPORT, England (Reuters) – More than 450 patients died prematurely in a British hospital after they were given powerful painkillers with no medical justification, in what a damning report on Wednesday found was a “disregard for human life”.

The exterior of Gosport War Memorial Hospital can be seen here in Gosport, Britain, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Britains prosecution service said it would examine whether criminal charges could be brought following the deaths at Gosport War Memorial Hospital in southern England.

An independent panel found that between 1989 and 2000, there was an institutionalised regime of prescribing and administering dangerous doses of opioids at the hospital which were not clinically necessary.

“There was a disregard for human life and a culture of shortening the lives of a large number of patients,” the report said, adding that warnings from nurses had been ignored and there had been a failure by police and medical regulators to protect patients.

Bishop James Jones, who led the Gosport War Memorial Hospital inquiry panel, holds a copy of the 'Gosport War memorial Hospital: The Report of the Gosport Independent Panel', outside Portsmouth Cathedral in Portsmouth, Britain, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

“The families, and indeed the nation as a whole, are entitled to ask how these events could have happened,” it added.

The 387-page report concluded that 456 patients were given opioids without justification and “probably at least another 200 patients similarly affected but whose clinical notes were not found”.

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“The events at Gosport Memorial Hospital were tragic, they are deeply troubling, and they brought unimaginable heartache to the families concerned,” Prime Minister Theresa May said in parliament. “The findings are obviously distressing.”

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt apologised in parliament to the families, and said police would work with the prosecutors on possible charges.

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“Had the establishment listened when ordinary families raised concerns… many of those deaths would not have happened,” he said.

The report noted the Gosport deaths and the concerns raised about them occurred at the same time as it was revealed that British family physician Harold Shipman, dubbed “Dr Death” had been responsible for killing patients in his care with lethal heroin injections.

Shipman, convicted in 2000 for murdering 15 patients, killed as many as 250 people in his care according to a later inquiry. But the panel examining the Gosport scandal said the circumstances were different.

“We draw a distinction because Harold Shipman acted alone, apparently, whereas what we are describing … in this report is an institutionalised practice, and that is a significant difference,” Reverend James Jones, the chairman of the independent panel, told reporters.

Writing by Michael Holden and Alistair Smout; editing by Stephen Addison

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