NHS England’s new chief will not commit to an “artificial” timescale for re-starting the Care.data project, raising the prospect of fresh delays to the controversial flagship project, the health committee has heard.

Simon Stevens described the current six month “pause” period, which runs until September, as “an important moment to listen much more carefully to what a range of people have got to say” and said that the programme should not be tied to an “artificial start date”.   

Facing MPs on the committee for the first time since becoming NHS England chief executive, he said there was “a real medical benefit as well as a research benefit” in building the new patient data base.

But he said he did not want it to go live before “we have properly had a chance to consider the concerns”.

He told MPs: “I don’t think there should be an artificial time scale. Clearly this is an important moment to listen much more carefully to what a range of people have got to say about how this programme should develop.”

Mr Stevens’ comments follow an announcement in April by Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s national director for patients and information, that the GP data extraction process would “begin in the autumn” and involve between 100 and 500 pilot practices ahead of a national roll out. 

NHS England aims to link the extracted GP data with patients’ Hospital Episode Statistics data and eventually other data sets to give a rich data set spanning patients’ entire care pathway.

In his letter to GPs, Mr Kelsey said: “Over the coming months, the [Health and Social Care Information Centre] will work to provide assurances over the safety of data collected, stored and shared, including the option of accessing data from a controlled environment, sometimes referred to as a ‘data-lab’ or ‘fume-cupboard’, for use by organisations requesting data.”

Despite a consensus around the potential medical benefits of the project, it has been mired in controversy.

Concerns surround the safety of patients’ confidential information and the potential for private sector organisations to wrongly profit from gaining access to the data.

National Voices chief executive Jeremy Taylor, who sits on the Care.data independent advisory group, also recently warned that it could take longer than the current six month pause to restore public confidence.