This is a longer version of an article published this morning on ComputerWeekly.com
Health officials are seeking urgently to sign deals with the two main suppliers to the NHS scheme, which would commit the next government to about £3bn of spending on the troubled National Programme for IT, Computer Weekly has learned.
New deals could frustrate plans by the Conservatives, if they win the general election, to halt and renegotiate contracts with the two NPfIT local service providers CSC and BT.
Whitehall officials aim to sign a memorandum of understanding with CSC and BT by the end of this month, which would commit the next government to a new schedule of NPfIT software deliveries and electronic patient record installations at NHS sites.
A legally-binding memorandum of understanding with each supplier would keep the NPfIT alive, after the Chancellor Alistair Darling told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme in December 2009 that the NHS IT scheme was not essential to the frontline.
The MoUs would commit the next government to spending the £3bn that remains unpaid under the original and reset NPfIT LSP contracts.
New deals would also refresh the NPfIT contracts, large parts of which are no longer relevant. Delays in the delivery of software, and changes in the NHS, mean that the original contract's timetables and schedules for software functionality are obsolescent.
New deals with CSC and BT within four weeks?
The NPfIT minister Mike O'Brien has confirmed to BBC R4's File on Four programme - in a broadcast this evening - that his officials aim to sign new deals by the end of March.
"We are certainly looking for a memorandum of understanding by the end of March if we can get that."
O'Brien hopes his department will shave £600m from the costs of the NPfIT.
When asked by File on 4 whether he was trying to sew up a deal by the end of March to tie the hands of the next government by giving new contracts, O'Brien said:
"No. What we are seeking to do is negotiate with the industry to achieve savings of £600 million pounds. Now these savings would be over the lifetime of the programme, up to 2016."
Work of government can't stop because of general election
When the BBC put it to O'Brien that the Conservatives are worried that a new deal would commit them to contracts they may wish to cancel, O'Brien said:
"No. What they are right to want to do is ensure that the savings that we promise are actually delivered, and we are discussing that with the various companies concerned ... we want to focus on the core elements of the programme that have been identified as critical by clinicians... you know there's a sort of party political knock-about around this to some extent.
"We need to get beyond that ... I'm certainly not going to get into a situation where because we're approaching a general election ... that the whole of government stops and we can't make any contracts with suppliers of key NHS equipment. That would be complete nonsense."
Will Cerner and iSoft lose their exclusivity?
O'Brien - and the Conservative shadow health minister Stephen O'Brien - have confirmed that NHS trusts will be offered a choice of systems within the framework of the CSC and BT local service provider contracts.
This could mean that CSC and BT are able to offer more than Cerner's Millennium and iSoft's Lorenzo as the main software products to trusts in England.
Conservatives could save "very little" from LSP contracts
O'Brien said that the Conservatives would be able to save "very little" from the NPfIT contracts.
He added dismantling the NPfIT IT infrastructure, as the Conservatives have said they wish to do, would "massively disrupt the development of an IT programme that frankly the NHS can't function without".
Are NHS and taxpayers in the hands of two IT suppliers?
Whereas the former head of NHS IT, Richard Granger, kept a tight rein on the NPfIT's local service providers, O'Brien has sympathy for them.
He said the suppliers have put in a lot of resources, taken on risks, are delivering "very substantial parts of their contracts", and are taking the "cost of any delays on their shoulders for the taxpayers".
This could be a hint that the suppliers may have a strong legal case against the government if their contracts are halted and they decide to sue.
File on 4 asked O'Brien if the NHS is stuck with the local service provider contracts. He replied: "As far as we are concerned, the government does not want to cancel them. What the government wants to do is make sure they're delivered because that's what's best for the NHS and patients."
BBC R4 File on 4 on Government IT projects and the NPfIT - tonight at 8pm
NHS IT deal stitch-up claim by Conservatives - BBC Online