The government says it wants to hasten the demise of the giant NHS National Programme for IT – but silicon.com chief reporter Nick Heath explains why the project isn’t going to end any time soon.

The ill-starred NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) is the tech project that just won’t die.

No matter how many times the government announces that it is killing the project off, the £11.4bn project keeps trundling on.

Today the Department of Health (DoH) made another announcement saying the NPfIT’s days are numbered – pronouncing that there will be an “acceleration of the dismantling of the National Programme for IT”, with the predictable result of newpapers dutifully reporting, once again, how the NPfIT has croaked, once and for all.

Summary Care Records

The Department of Health will struggle to accelerate the demise of the National Programme for ITPhoto: Shutterstock

The problem is that the government has so far produced little evidence of what that statement really means, or how it will kill off the NPfIT, other than recycling a promise to move away from imposing NPfIT IT systems on health trusts that it first made last year.

Behind the spin very little appears to be changing – the NPfIT’s flagship £7bn project to create electronic health records for patients in England is continuing and there are no changes to completed NPfIT projects such as Choose and Book and the Picture Archiving and Communications Service. So much for a rapid dismantling, and so much for the “£12bn NHS computer system is scrapped” headlines.

Even if the government is determined to kill off other bits of NPfIT, its contractual obligations would likely stop it. There is some £4bn-worth of work still left to carry out on the electronic health records project and cancelling the contracts involved early would lead to the government incurring massive penalty payouts: terminating CSC’s £3bn NPfIT contract, for example, could cost more than seeing it through to completion, according to former DoH CIO Christine Connelly.

What’s more, the government is still caught up in negotiations with another NPfIT supplier, Fujitsu, as it tries to tie up the loose ends that arose from Fujitsu’s early departure from the NPfIT in 2008, and is unlikely to be keen to repeat the experience.

It’s not as if the government hasn’t been…

 

…trying to extract itself from NPfIT already. Back in March this year, Prime Minister David Cameron said the government was considering “terminating some of, or indeed all of” CSC’s NPfIT contract with the Department of Health. For its part, the DoH has been in talks with CSC for more than a year about renegotiating the terms of its contract, and has said it expects to reduce the contract’s value by £500m.

It’s only understandable that the government wants to be seen to be washing its hands of NPfIT: the programme has become synonymous with the troubled electronic health records project, which is running years behind schedule and, according to a Cabinet Office review of the project whose findings the government announced in part today, “cannot deliver to its original intent”.

Almost 10 years have passed since the electronic health records scheme was announced in 2002 and there are still thousands of surgeries and hospitals waiting for records system to be deployed. Meanwhile, almost none of the systems that have been delivered to date are providing the full electronic patient record that the Department of Health expected when the scheme was set up.

So it’s no surprise that the government wants to rid itself of this costly hangover that it inherited from the Labour government, and there are signs that its doing what it can to control spend on the NPfIT and accelerate its demise: signs such as the government today announcing that it has scrapped the NPfIT board, the Department of Health body that worked with local health trusts to oversee progress on NPfIT projects, and will put in place a new body to “support government decision making” on the programme.

The fact remains however that the NPfIT is still alive and kicking, and the government’s weighty contractual obligations to NPfIT’s suppliers mean that the programme can only be cut so far. None of this is to say that the government isn’t right to try to cut costs, but that the announcement they’ve made is simplistic in the extreme. It’s a far more complicated than just pressing a big button marked ‘Stop’.

To pare back the programme too quickly, or indeed scrap it altogether, would likely cost the government dear, and in these times of austerity the government can ill afford accusations of wasting yet more money on NPfIT.