Secret Downing Street papers reveal Tony Blair rushed NHS IT

Downing Street papers disclose prime minister's role in unrealistic timetable for NHS National Programme for IT

Tony Blair repeatedly sought to shorten the timetable for the NHS IT programme in a move that would have brought results for patients in time for a general election in 2005, Computer Weekly has learned.

Papers obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Department of Health drastically underestimated the time it would take to make electronic patient records available online.

In papers presented to an NHS IT meeting at Downing Street, the Department of Health promised systems would provide "seamless" care across the NHS by 2004/05 - less than half of the time now allotted to the scheme. The meeting, on 18 February 2002, was attended by IT suppliers, policy advisers and health experts.

But Tony Blair made it clear that he regarded even the 2004/05 timescale as too long. He asked repeatedly for it to be shortened, which would have brought visible benefits in time for a general election in May 2005.

Blair told the meeting that implementing the programme faster than planned would underpin the government's reform agenda and provide evidence of NHS modernisation to the public.

But the timetable in the Department of Health papers has proved hopelessly optimistic. Access by patients and doctors to national summary care records are only at a trial stage. And contracts for the delivery and implementation of new national systems run until 2013 - eight years later than the timetable presented to Downing Street.

The Department of Health awarded a series of contracts in record time under the NHS's National Programme for IT (NPfIT) in 2003, but some suppliers complained they were being given too little time to consider their proposals.

The main part of the programme - a national electronic health record - is running three years behind the original timetable, in part because the idea is more difficult than first thought to put into practice.

The papers raise questions about whether the timetable for the NPfIT was geared towards a general election, rather than the practicalities and complexities of the scheme - and whether the Department of Health put politics before realities in promising the programme in less than three years.

Paul Cundy, GP IT spokesman for the British Medical Association, said it appeared that the Department of Health had been "wildly, even delusionally, optimistic about the timetable for the NPfIT in order to secure funding".

Vince Cable, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the Downing Street papers showed that the NPfIT was launched after a discussion that stood out for its "amateurism, naivety and a lack of consideration of the practicalities".

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