Lord Hunt’s return to the Department of Health, where he will replace Lord Warner who had responsibility for the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT], has advantages and disadvantages.
Hunt was one of the ministers at a Downing Street meeting in February 2002, which was chaired by the Prime Minister Tony Blair, where the national programme was given the provisional go-ahead.
He was also the minister who made early announcements in 2002 on the launch of the national programme.
Sir John Pattison, former senior responsible owner of the NPfIT, referred to Lord Hunt when he revealed who had been at the Downing Street meeting.
Pattison said in Harrogate in March 2002: “Last month the Prime Minister chaired a seminar on IT in the NHS at Number 10 in the presence of the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, the Chief Executive of the Office of Government Commerce, the e-Envoy, representatives of the Wanless Review Team, representatives of the Adair Turner Review Team, our Secretary of State, Lord Hunt, myself and others. That shows that the Prime Minister thinks the development of IT in the NHS is also something of great importance.”
Hunt resigned from the government in 2003 in protest at the Iraq war. His return to the Department of Health means that the NPfIT now has in charge a minister who has a sound working knowledge of the programme’s original aims. He also has a good knowledge of the NHS.
He was hospital administrator at Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Oxford. Many years after he left Nuffield it became a pioneering site for the NPfIT. It was the first hospital in the South of England to adopt the Cerner Millennium system as part of the national programme for IT’s Care Records Service.
Problems with the implementation, which included lost appointments, backlogs of work and delayed operations on patients, led to Nuffield’s losing its status as a top-performing hospital.
Lord Hunt was also a member of Oxfordshire Area Health Authority between 1975 and 1977, was a director of the National Association of Health Authorities and was the first chief executive of the NHS Confederation.
So his health credentials are unimpeachable. As an independent voice on the NPfIT, his credentials are not so assured. Being a direct participant in the original plans for the NPfIT he may be regarded as having an interest in not rocking the boat. Party officials will regard him, therefore, as a good choice of minister.
Some will say, however, that a public sector IT programme in serious trouble needs as its political master a minister who will bring a fresh and independent eye to the difficulties, who will if necessary make politically-uncomfortable decisions without being restrained by any emotional or political equity in the scheme, who will not feel compelled to defend what has happened before to spare hurt feelings.
Is Lord Hunt, a minister who has effectively sworn allegiance to the scheme as originally conceived, such a man?