A government decision to tender for a new tier of suppliers to the NHS's £12.4bn National Programme for IT (NPfIT) has been welcomed by NHS trusts, though some have told Computer Weekly that it shows that the current "one-size-fits-all" approach is not working.
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The NPfIT currently uses three main contractors, BT, CSC and Fujitsu, known as local service providers, to deliver "core" NHS systems such as the Care Records System.
The government had originally wanted these suppliers also to provide "additional" systems required by trusts, but after long delays in the delivery of core applications, some trusts have begun to buy from suppliers outside the programme.
That has added to doubts about whether the original NPfIT contracts can meet the NHS's changing requirements.
Last month, a senior representative of a local service provider told MPs and others at a private meeting that suppliers and the NHS lacked the skills to meet the health service's needs.
Connecting for Health, which manages the NPfIT, said it was putting in place "framework contracts to ensure there is an available supply route of additional capacity and availability of resources to the NHS to meet future needs if required".
It said the framework contracts were a contingency plan, but declined to give details of what the contingency measures were for. It also said that trusts would not be able to buy core systems from the accredited suppliers without going through local service providers. It declined to say if the additional suppliers could offer only non-core systems.
A spokesman for Connecting for Health said, "We cannot give any more explicit detail at this time because it would be counter to the OJEU [European tendering] process. Once the OJEU is public, we can discuss this further."
So far NHS executives appear unsure how to react to the new framework contract. Some argue that it is a sensible measure to ensure that there are other accredited suppliers that can meet the NHS's needs.
Others view the appointment of back-up suppliers as a crisis measure forced on the programme because local service providers may fail to meet the NHS's needs.
An announcement on the repositioning of the NPfIT is expected to be made by health minister Lord Hunt at this month's HC2007 healthcare IT conference in Harrogate.
Paul Cundy, joint chairman of the British Medical Association's GP IT sub-committee, said, "We welcome the appointment of accredited suppliers to the NPfIT, though it does appear to put the NHS back to the position it was in six years ago, when trusts could buy from a range of suppliers whose products had certain minimum features."
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