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Warnings ignored over NHS IT system in 2002

Whitehall officials warned repeatedly in private that the NHS information technology programme (NPfIT) would run into serious problems as early as 2002, according to freedom of information requests.

The Office of Government Commerce, a wing of the Treasury, was concerned about the labour government’s ability to take on such an enormous project from the beginning.

Over several years the OGC repeatedly raised issues of unrealistic timetables, unknown procurement risk and an inability to predict costs or value for money.

It questioned whether the labour government had enough qualified staff or an ability to manage large IT programmes. For example, it wrote that there was “no overall concept of affordability or ability to demonstrate value for money”.

The warnings now appear eerily prescient, given that the estimated cost of the project has since ballooned from £5bn to £13bn ($8bn to $21bn). The project is running four years late, prompting the Department of Health to warn that contracts could even be terminated if progress is not made by November.

Companies including CSC, Cerner and BT are involved in the mammoth task of letting half of patients book referral appointments online, setting up broadband connections within the NHS and delivering digital x-ray communication systems.

The OGC’s concerns came to light after the Tories obtained 31 of its reports through an FoI claim.

Nine of the reports gave “red” status to elements of the programme, implying that urgent remedial action was needed for the project to succeed.

“These reviews expose Labour’s incompetence over the NHS IT system,” said Stephen O’Brien, shadow health minister.

“It’s incredible that, right from the beginning, the government should have ignored these repeated warnings about problems.”

The information has only emerged now because the Department of Health previously blocked publication. Six reports, undertaken since 2006 are still being withheld.