NHS CIO Christine Connelly defends National Programme contracts and sets out future plans

The NHS chief information officer has defended the troubled £12bn National Programme for IT as her office prepares a strategy to succeed it.

The NHS chief information officer has defended the troubled £12bn National Programme for IT system as her office prepares a strategy to succeed it.

Christine Connelly told a conference in London on Tuesday the contracts behind the controversial project represented value for money.

She was defending the multibillion-pound local service provider (LSP) contracts with BT and CSC and the IT systems that drew scathing attacks by the government when in opposition.

They were a focus of criticism against the Labour government's IT strategy and have come to epitomise the gargantuan commercial arrangements the coalition has since tried to prohibit, a policy it re-iterated with the publication of its own IT strategy last month.

"In terms of the value for money for the LSP contracts, all the work we've done, we believe that contract is value for money," said Christine Connelly.

Connelly referred specifically to BT's £1.2bn contract to provide health IT systems for London, after MP Richard Bacon challenged her over the deal in a letter. The government had excused BT half of its contractual commitments to deliver systems to hospitals, GPs and ambulance crews, but was having just £112m shaved off its £1.2bn fee, according to Bacon, who sits on Parliament's Public Accounts Committee.

The health CIO's defence was unequivocal: "We can talk around that for a hundred years but the bottom line is we believe that contract is value for money.

"I'm aware that Mr Bacon believed I didn't say that clearly enough in the past, so there you go," she told the Westminster Health IT Forum.

Connelly went before the conference to talk about the Department of Health's (DoH) part in the government's IT reforms. Her proposals, half of which are now being finalised after the closure of the department's Information Revolution consultation, echoed the wider government IT strategy's preference for open standards. This assumes a vibrant market will grow in opposition to oligopolistic contracts such as those established under the National Programme.

The DoH would produce a two-part IT strategy, the first being an information strategy concerned only with the means to create a free flow of information in the NHS, said Connelly.

Connelly said the programme would ultimately require thousands of NHS organisations and their private sector partners to create, modify and handle health data in precisely the same way.

Only later this year will DoH publish the other half of its strategy, the more conventional technology proposals. Connelly insisted the NHS would distance information and the technology used to manage it.

"We should clearly think about information and the properties of information and how we want to have it in the system, not be constrained by the technologies available today because those technologies will shift very quickly," she said.

That would give people an as-yet undefined level of control over their health data, said Connelly, implying that the personal data stores proposed by the likes of Patients Know Best were being weaved into the information strategy.

"We are clear we need to offer people access to their whole [health] record, but beyond offering access, the intent is to offer people control of their record," said Connelly.

She did not go so far as to suggest people should have ownership of their information, as the Conservatives had said in opposition was desirable. Neither did she give any indication people would hold the primary copy of their health data.

But the DoH is considering how it might allow people to take copies of their health information and share it with carers and IT providers of their choice.

The free flow of NHS information would also aid academic research and challenge clinicians with the publication of unalloyed performance data and patient feedback, she said. One GP in the audience protested this would lead to unvalidated gripes being given more credence than they deserved.

Connelly said the DoH was concerned with allowing those people health professionals were talking about to actively engage in the dialogue.

"It's not just about people making comments. It's to start a conversation. We are not looking for a comments page, we are looking for active dialogue," said Connelly.

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