Lord Hunt, the not so relaxed minister in charge of the NHS's National Programme

Comment:

In 2003 Computer Weekly interviewed Lord Hunt, after he had resigned from the government over the Iraq war, at which time he had an easy self confidence, and was always enthusiastic about the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] and its future.

At the HC2007 Healthcare IT conference conference at Harrogate on Monday 19 March 2007 he was not as relaxed.


Some of the minister’s words were chosen carefully, though he was still enthusiastic about the NPfIT, and he was ready to accept that lessons have been learned, in particular that officials had tried to do too much too quickly.

Perhaps Lord Hunt’s caution – and a hint of nervousness – are because he is the minister in charge of a £12.4bn programme at a critical time for the NPfIT, and because he is one of the ministers responsible for the centralised programme’s existence.

“Why did we take such a national direction approach?” asked Lord Hunt, “Frankly, and I suppose I have to put my hand on heart, and I have to perhaps bear responsibility for this, frankly I think it’s the only way that we could have achieved change in any scale of time at all within such a huge system.”

It may also be that Lord Hunt’s slight unease was because, although free to say what he likes in favour of the NPfIT, he will know what he shouldn’t say. For a minister who is likely to be in command of the facts, this may be quite a challenge.

At the end of his speech Lord Hunt took questions, but he arrived on the conference stage only minutes before he was due to give his speech, and he left directly afterwards. It had been made clear before he arrived that he would not be available after the conference session for interviews with reporters.

It is our experience that senior figures in government rarely mind being asked anything by outsiders, including the media, but their officials and advisers sometimes prefer that questions are asked in what they see as a controlled environment. This means that minders like to be present at the time reporters are asking questions of ministers. This deters the interviewer from asking too awkward a question – this being one that could debar the reporter from being invited to do further interviews with the minister. The presence of the minder also reminds the minister of the need to be careful about what they say.

When a Computer Weekly reporter spoke informally a few weeks ago to David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the NHS – all credit to Nicholson for allowing it happen – no minders were present. Later, when his advisers heard what had happened, they approached the reporter and required that he check anything he wanted to say with the Department of Health. Advisers are not usually quite so peremptory. This may indicate that officials are concerned about what is said in the media over the NPfIT, perhaps because of the ever-present danger that reporters could get the right end of the stick.

**

It is a pity that three speakers from Connecting for Health were withdrawn from the HC2007 conference at short notice. No officials were there to defend the programme against strongly critical comments made by several speakers at conference sessions yesterday (Monday 19 March 2007).

Professor Sir Muir Gray, Director of Clinical Knowledge Process and Safety, National Programme for IT, was one of the three speakers withdrawn. He was due to give a “key issue” address to the conference on the first day. His speech was entitled “Do once and share what?”

One delegate said that Sir Muir was surprised and less than pleased at learning he was not to attend HC2007. On the second day of the conference Richard Jeavons, another of the withdrawn speakers, had also been due to give a “key issue” address. Jeavons is Director of IT Service Implementation at the Department of Health.

The third speaker to be withdrawn was Richard Granger, Director General of NHS IT. He is reported to be speaking in Australia this week.

Connecting for Health, which runs the NPfIT, gave the impression to Computer Weekly that senior executives at the agency need to spend their time engaging with clinicians, the implication being that they do not have as much time to talk to health IT professionals at the HC2007 conference.

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I'd like to see some articles about how you deal with a failed or part-failed project. What do you actually do when you've contracted to deliver things you didn't understand, the project has muddled along for a few years with everybody doing what they can, and the consequences are gradually getting clearer?

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Perhaps you could frame your questions to the newly appointed crisis management experts (sorry, delete, that is not what they are doing in Leeds); rebuttal team (sorry, not that function now either) - Communications team at NHSCFH - who were seen at Harrogate on Monday gathering views (pity they missed the other good stuff on the other two days) - after all they were badged as fellow 'Press' people there (good disguise, huh!).

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I can assure you they don't talk to clinicians. The vast majority of doctors thing the whole thing is farcical and none of us asked for it.

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