NHS plan branded a 'farce'

A £2.3bn plan for NHS computer systems has been branded a farce, with the Department of Health asking selected bidders to design...

A £2.3bn plan for NHS computer systems has been branded a farce, with the Department of Health asking selected bidders to design some of the world's biggest and most complex systems in only five weeks.

The criticism of the NHS IT plan came last week as the department announced that 22 firms have been selected to go forward to the next round of a competition. Five local service providers will be contracted to deliver IT systems for thousands of health service organisations.

Some of those involved in the bidding have spoken to Computer Weekly about what they regard as unrealistically short timescales for NHS projects. They did not want to be identified because of fears of being banned from the bidding if they publicly criticise the department's IT plan.

One senior executive involved in the programme said the timetable was "a farce" because each bidding consortia must design systems of unprecedented scale and complexity, covering 20% of the population of England by midday on 30 June.

The selected bidders were not given the deadline until late in the afternoon of 23 May. They were presented with a 500-page "output-based specification" document, which is described as "work in progress" and not a final specification.

"There is some very good stuff in the document but there are some obvious problems," said one supplier executive.

NHS IT chiefs seemed to be "trying to specify everything they have failed to deliver over the past 20 years", he said. Elsewhere, "there is not the level of detail suppliers need".

Tola Sargeant, an analyst at Ovum Holway, said getting the £2.3bn procurement process right was very complex and raised the spectre of previous government IT failures.

"There is a need to balance speed with best practice. If the procurement process puts suppliers under too much pressure, we will regret it in the long run. We have seen it in other parts of the public sector."

Uncertainty about the process played a part in the decision by two major suppliers, Oracle and Unisys, to withdraw from the original pre-qualification list of 31 organisations announced by NHS IT chief Richard Granger in April. Both said they would like to work with the NHS in other ways.

A spokesman for the national IT plan dismissed supplier concerns about the procurement process and sought to reassure clinicians who continue to express fears that the programme is blighting local healthcare IT initiatives.

"All bidders were made aware of the procurement timescale from the outset in order to be fully prepared for a process that is as rapid as good practice allows," he said.

"The NHS is expecting the private sector to commit substantial, high-quality resources to the bidding process. A rapid procurement process brings with it the benefits of maintaining management focus, better engagement of prospective suppliers, and brings end-users closer to the delivery of tangible change for the better."

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