Health minister John Hutton was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme last week about this publication’s revelation that the final cost of the NHS IT programme could be more than £18.6bn.
Interviewer Ed Stourton asked about the accuracy of Computer Weekly’s figures. The minister replied, "I think you should just realise that this story is essentially largely speculation. We have made very substantial amounts of resources available to the NHS to support the national programme for IT, which is going to improve patient safety, quality and the overall patient experience of using the NHS.
"Currently, trusts spend about £1bn a year operating their existing IT systems and of course once the national programme starts to come through in the NHS, that is a resource that will be able to support the implementation of the national programme.
"So I think really all that has happened today is that someone has speculated about what they think the overall costs might be. We are not going to ask the NHS to carry an unsustainable financial burden. We are not stupid."
Stourton wanted the minister to be more specific. "We are agreed that the original figure set aside for procurement [of the national plan] was £6.2bn?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Hutton, "over 10 years."
"And is [Computer Weekly] right when it said that the figure for implementation, for actually putting the stuff in and getting it working locally, could be three to five times the £6.2bn?"
Hutton replied, "That is the figure that people are chucking around. There is no evidence whatsoever that that will actually be the costs of implementing the national programme for IT. It is one of the figures that is often used. As I say, we currently spend £1bn a year..."
Stourton, "But you must have some idea, just forgive me, but just on that figure, you must have some idea how much this is going to cost to implement?"
Hutton, "Well yes, we spend £1bn a year on implementing our existing IT systems."
Stourton, "Yes, but how much is the new system going to cost to implement?"
Hutton, "Well we haven’t ..."
Stourton, "You should have an answer to that shouldn’t you?"
Hutton, "Yes, and we think it is going to cost the same as we are currently spending, £1bn a year that NHS trusts currently spend on operating 5,000 separate IT systems across the NHS. We will have one integrated, coherent IT system that will apply in all parts of the NHS; and we think that will give the NHS, NHS trusts and primary care trusts the resource they need to implement the programme sensibly and successfully."
Stourton, "To be absolutely clear about the £6.2bn, that remains the amount it costs to procure this?"
Hutton, "Yes it does."
Stourton, "And you reject any suggestion that the cost of implementing it is going to be as high as these figures in Computer Weekly suggest?"
Hutton, "Well we certainly do. Look, I mean it would be insane to say to the NHS: ‘Look here is £15bn worth of additional costs for you to bear that we have not budgeted for.’ We do not behave like that and the NHS cannot be funded like that. It spends a very significant amount of money implementing a whole variety of different IT systems, many of them that cannot actually speak to each other.
"That is why we are introducing the national programme for IT and we are very confident that the £1bn a year we are currently spending in revenue on operating this variety of hotchpotch systems can be used successfully in the future to implement the national programme for IT."
Stourton, "It seems remarkable that what is paying for a system as it works at the moment will cover what is the cost of implementing a very new and sophisticated system."
Hutton, "Well, I am not so sure that is true when you think that we have actually got a network of 5,000 local independent systems that are not properly integrated, which means that actually one hospital quite frequently cannot speak to another.
"The whole benefit and purpose of the national programme will be that it will introduce this integration right across the service. We are the most integrated healthcare system in the world, but we have got currently the least functional IT system to support the work we do."
To hear the full interview, go to the audio archive for 12 October at Listen Again