Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Scrap NHS IT Waste, Save £12.7bn

The biggest non-military IT project in the world is crashing down around the government's ears, yet ministers are steadfastly squandering billions of pounds of taxpayers cash on the useless NHS white-elephant. 

The government is happy to write a blank cheque for this enormous disaster, as time and again the commons watchdog warns of delays after delays. 

The NHS's Connecting for Health (CfH) computer system, has been dogged by problems since its launch in 2002 in the heyday of New Labour. The biggest non-military IT computer project in the world costs a staggering £12.7 billion and is already more than five years behind schedule. 

The whole project was born during chancellor Brown's boom years, when mesmerised ministers were quite happy to be strung along by slick IT salesman and consultants who promised the earth and delivered nothing. 

The government was hoodwinked by the promise of a revolution using the white heat of information technology and time and again the chickens came home to roost, as many of the big IT projects crashed and burned, ending up as embarrassing financial fiascos. 

Now MPs on the public accounts committee (PAC) have thrown fresh doubts on even a 2015 deadline for the disastrous NHS computer project. 

Its chairman said that even in trusts already using parts of the system, staff were unimpressed and the cost to the NHS was uncertain.

Both the Tories and Labour's left have seized on the project as another example of government waste and have called for the whole project to be scrapped, as minister's attempts to ram through a top-down, centralised, one-size-fits-all central NHS computer system come crashing down around their ears. 

Billions of pounds of tax-payers' money is just going down the drain and into the pockets of the IT consultants, leaving doctors and hospital chiefs trying to get to grips with an unworkable IT system, instead of looking after the welfare of patients.

PAC MPs heard that two out of the four companies producing the NHS system have pulled out and some hospitals have been forced to bring in their own software as they struggle with 'Choose and Book' and '18-week targets'.

Not a single trust in the North, Midlands and East had begun using software for 'care records'  as of the end of last year. Essential systems are late and estimates of local costs are still very unreliable. 

The Orange Party and others have flagged up the NHS computer project as one the most shameful examples of how the government has squandered away public cash. None are more vociferous than David Craig in his detailed financial analysis of government waste - Squandered.

With the country deep in recession, now is the time to take tough decisions on the future of this £12.7 billion waste.

Instead of wandering around in a bemused daze, wasting time launching yet another 'heathstyle initiative', health secretary, Alan Johnson, could do well to get off his backside and get to grips with the problem. 

If he doesn't the Tories will and use it as yet another example of the fine mess the government has got us all into. And who could blame them?

UPDATE 11.19am: Too late for the health secretary. The BBC reports the Conservatives are considering plans for a £100m cap on government IT contracts to prevent "white elephants" such as the NHS computer system.

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