The Department of Health has backed down over GP payments for accessing NHSnet.
According to documents seen by Computer Weekly, around-the-clock access to NHSnet will now be made available to general practices at "no local cost".
The decision follows concerns, voiced by GPs in Computer Weekly, that they would have to pay for a service that has not proved to be useful.
Last summer, plans to connect all computerised practices to NHSnet were put on hold. In a letter to regional directors of the NHS Executive, director of planning Alasdair Liddell explained that concerns about reliability and performance, as well as a lack of supplier and NHS capacity due to millennium work, were also behind the decision to suspend the deadline.
Liddell's letter, sent out at the end of last year, says that improvement plans have been agreed with NHSnet contractors BT Syntegra and Cable & Wireless. Implemen-tation has begun to ensure performance problems do not re-occur, it said.
To ensure these levels of service are maintained, the Department of Health and the BMA are considering ways to make contractors more directly accountable to users if problems do occur with NHSnet.
Paul Cundy, chairman of the GP's Committee IT Sub-committee of the BMA, welcomed the Department of Health's decision to make the service free to GPs, but emphasised there are still obstacles to be overcome.
"We're delighted that the concept of free service has been taken up," he said. "However, we are not aware that negotiations have been concluded. We have to set out the details of what 'no local cost' means, and how quality and performance are going to be policed. The system might be free, but with no guarantee of standards. What is the point in a free service if it's a turkey?"
At the end of 1997, the Government said it would connect all GPs to NHSnet by the end of the century in order to offer clinical advice and improve administrative procedures.
However, by February 1999 concerns over performanceandsecurity prompted the BMA to warn doctors against connecting to the network.