By Tony Collins
To Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, the NPfIT was a failure. In an interview with the FT, reported on 2 June 2013, Hunt said of the NPfIT
“It was a huge disaster . . . It was a project that was so huge in its conception but it got more and more specified and over-specified and in the end became impossible to deliver … But we musn’t let that blind us to the opportunities of technology and I think one of my jobs as health secretary is to say, look, we must learn from that and move on but we must not be scared of technology as a result.”
Now Hunt has a different approach. “I’m not signing any big contracts from behind [my] desk; I am encouraging hospitals and clinical commissioning groups and GP practices to make their own investments in technology at the grassroots level.”
Hunt’s indictment of the NPfIT has never been accepted by some senior officials at the DH, particularly the outgoing chief executive of the NHS Sir David Nicholson. Indeed the DH is now making strenuous attempts to cost justify the NPfIT, in part by forecasting benefits for aspects of the programme to 2024.
The DH has not published its statement which attempts to cost justify the NPfIT. But the National Audit Office yesterday published its analysis of the unpublished DH statement. The NAO’s analysis “Review of the final benefits statement for programmes previously managed under the National Programme for IT in the NHS” is written for the Public Accounts Committee which meets next week to question officials on the NPfIT.
A 22 year programme?
When Tony Blair gave the NPfIT a provisional go-ahead at a meeting in Downing Street in 2002, the programme was due to last less than three years. It was due to finish by the time of the general election of 2005. Now the NPfIT turns out to be a programme lasting up to 22 years.
Yesterday’s NAO report says the end-of-life of the North, Midlands and East of England part of the NPfIT is 2024. Says the NAO
“There is, however, very considerable uncertainty around whether the forecast benefits will be realised, not least because the end-of-life dates for the various systems extend many years into the future, to 2024 in the case of the North, Midlands and East Programme for IT.”
The DH puts the benefits of the NPfIT at £3.7bn to March 2012 – against costs of £7.3bn to March 2012.
Never mind: the DH has estimated the forecast benefits to the end-of-life of the systems at £10.7bn. This is against forecast costs of £9.8bn to the end-of-life of the systems.
The forecast end-of-life dates are between 2016 and 2024. The estimated costs of the NPfIT do not include any settlement with Fujitsu over its £700m claim against NHS Connecting for Health. The forecast costs (and potential benefits) also exclude the patient administration system Lorenzo because of uncertainties over the CSC contract.
The NAO’s auditors raise their eyebrows at forecasting of benefits so far into the future. Says the NAO report
“It is clear there is very considerable uncertainty around the benefits figures reported in the benefits statement. This arises largely because most of the benefits relate to future periods and have not yet been realised. Overall £7bn (65 per cent) of the total estimated benefits are forecast to arise after March 2012, and the proportion varies considerably across the individual programmes depending on their maturity.
“For three programmes, nearly all (98 per cent) of the total estimated benefits were still to be realised at March 2012, and for a fourth programme 86 per cent of benefits remained to be realised.
There are considerable potential risks to the realisation of future benefits, for example systems may not be deployed as planned, meaning that benefits may be realised later than expected or may not be realised at all…”
NPfIT is not dead
The report also reveals that the DH considers the NPfIT to be far from dead. Says the NAO
“From April 2013, the Department [of Health] appointed a full-time senior responsible owner accountable for the delivery of the [the NPfIT] local service provider contracts for care records systems in London, the South and the North, Midlands and East, and for planning and managing the major change programme that will result from these contracts ending.
“The senior responsible owner is supported by a local service provider programme director in the Health and Social Care Information Centre.
“In addition, from April 2013, chief executives of NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts became responsible for the realisation and reporting of benefits on the ground. They will also be responsible for developing local business cases for the procurement of replacement systems ready for when the local service provider contracts end.”
The NAO has allowed the DH to include as a benefit of the NPfIT parts of the programme that were not included in the original programme such as PACS x-ray systems.
Officials have also assumed as a benefit quicker diagnosis from the Summary Care Record and text reminders using NHSmail which the DH says reduces the number of people who did not attend their appointment by between 30 and 50 per cent.
One of the most remarkable things about the NPfIT is the way benefits have always been – and still are – referred to in the future tense. Since the NPfIT was announced in 2002, numerous ministerial statements, DH press releases and conference announcements have all referred to what will happen with the NPfIT.
Back in June 2002, the document that launched the NPfIT, Delivering 21st Century IT for the NHS, said:
“We will quickly develop the infrastructure …”
“In 2002/03 we will seek to accelerate the pace of development …
“Phase 1 – April 2003 to December 2005 …Full National Health Record Service implemented, and accessible nationally for out of hours reference.”
In terms of the language used little has changed. Yesterday’s NAO report is evidence that the DH is still saying that the bulk of the benefits will come in future.
Next week (12 June) NHS chief Sir David Nicholson is due to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions on the NPfIT. One thing is not in doubt: he will not concede that the programme has been a failure.
Neither will he concede that a fraction of the £7.3bn spent on the programme up to March 2012 would have been needed to join up existing health records for the untold benefit of patients, especially those with complex and long-term conditions.
Isn’t it time MPs called the DH to account for living in cloud cuckoo land? Perhaps those at the DH who are still predicting the benefits of the NPfIT into the distant future should be named.
They might just as well have predicted, with no less credibility, that in 2022 the bulk of the NPfIT’s benefits would be delivered by the Flower Fairies.
It is a nonsense that the DH is permitted to waste time on this latest cost justification of the NPfIT. Indeed it is a continued waste of money for chief executives of NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts to have been made responsible, as of April 2013, for reporting the benefits of the NPfIT.
Jeremy Hunt sums up the NPfIT when he says it has been a huge disaster. It is the UK’s biggest-ever IT disaster. Why does officialdom not accept this?
Instead of wasting more money on delving into the haystack for benefits of the NPfIT, it would be more sensible to allocate money and people to spreading the word within Whitehall and to the wider public sector on the losses of the NPfIT and the lessons that must be learnt to discourage any future administrations from embarking on a multi-billion pound folly.