Three major NHS IT pilot schemes have ground to a halt amidst uncertainty ahead of the contract awards for the national programme for IT.
A private finance initiative pilot project for the development of an integrated care records service (ICRS) in Thames Valley has been put in "abeyance" because of funding doubts.
At the same time, two successful electronic transmission of prescription (ETP) projects are being halted, rather than developed as part of a national roll-out.
The decision to put the Thames Valley PFI project on hold followed the cancellation earlier this year of the £114m Shires electronic patient record project, which was to cover three million people in the West Country and the £250m Blackberd electronic patient records project in the Midlands.
NHS IT chief Richard Granger has repeatedly said the national IT programme is not causing a planning blight, but a statement from the Thames Valley project last week appeared to contradict this.
"The local ICRS programme has enabled us to develop our own solution in advance of the national procurement programme," it read. The statement said the procurement process was put into "abeyance" because "negotiations with potential providers have been impacted by actions in other parts of the country and lack of certainty about the availability of central funds".
The running down of ETP trials has also raised the issue of planning blight in NHS IT.
A spokesman for the NHS national IT programme said the ETP projects had run their course and proved that "prescriptions can be transmitted electronically and in a safe and secure manner".
Despite the end of the pilot projects, he insisted there would be no slippage in the timetable for the roll out of a national service.
"The pilots have been independently evaluated," he said. "This information will be used to help shape the specification for a national prescription service to achieve the targets outlined in Delivering 21st Century IT Support for the NHS [a key policy document] of a national prescription service to be 50% implemented by the end of 2005 and fully implemented by 2006/2007."
However, Delivering 21st Century IT Support for the NHS, published in June 2002, said of the ETP pilots, "It is anticipated that the trials will continue to grow and involve a sizeable number of GPs and pharmacists, with a natural migration into roll out."
Julian Harrison, ETP project manager for Pharmacy2U - one of two pilots that are coming to an end - said that was not happening. "We have not had a clear steer from the centre," he said. "Either the government should push the button on a ready-to-implement national ETP plan or it should keep the existing pilots running to allow ongoing testing until a national plan is ready to roll."
NHS IT may need more than £2.3bn
NHS IT chief Richard Granger may require more than the £2.3bn he has been allocated by the Treasury to deliver the national programme for IT, according to John Pattison, director of research at the Department of Health, who has been a driving force behind the national programme.
Pattison's comments came as local authority leaders warned that the planning blight affecting NHS IT was beginning to affect local authority IT developments.
Speaking at an e-healthcare conference last week, Pattison told delegates, "Whether £2.3bn will be adequate for the next three years is still an interesting question."
The £2.3bn funding level was based on "engineering estimates", he said, adding that further funding may be required once the contracts for the local service providers and national systems are built out.
Pattison also said that despite the government's drive to link up health and local authority social care provision, social services would remain the poor relation.
While the NHS is due to receive £2.3bn in the next three years, just £25m a year has being allocated to local authorities to address health and social care integration.