An extra 1bn will to be added to NHS information technology budgets over the next seven years to fund the IM&T strategy published last week.

The investment equates to 10m for each health authority in England - all 'new money' on top of existing IT budgets, according to health secretary Frank Dobson.

It is the first substantial tranche of cash to be allocated from the 5bn NHS modernisation fund, set up at the end of the comprehensive spending review.

The first 70m becomes available in 1999. Of this, 40m is earmarked for connecting GP practices to NHSnet and another 20m will go on IT systems for primary care groups.

The other 10m will go towards recruiting local specialists - with an assurance that this will not count against health authorities' cost management calculations.

A health service circular went out last week ordering HAs to set up project teams to begin implementing the strategy, in collaboration with social services departments.

Additional cash allocations for 2000 have not been announced, but are 'certain to be more', said Mr Dobson. The money will have to pay for a nationwide expansion of NHS Direct as well as the first electronic patient record systems in acute trusts.

Mr Dobson emphasised that cash allocations will depend on what is needed to bring individual trusts up to required standards, rather than a bidding process.

'We have to cover the whole country with this strategy, so each trust will be given the money to enable them to do what we have set out,' he said.

But strategy author Frank Burns, outgoing head of IM&T for the NHS, said those who have made a good start will not be 'penalised' for it.

The announcement covers the English NHS only. Scotland - whose IM&T strategy is due to be released shortly - is 'already more advanced' in some aspects of IT than England, said Mr Dobson.

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