Published: 16/09/2004, Volume II4, No. 5923 Page 3

The NHS will not have the IT systems in place to implement choose and book in full by December 2005, strategic health authority choice leads have warned.

Surrey and Sussex SHA choice lead Simon Williams told HSJ that there is 'no chance' of electronic booking being on every GP's desktop by next year's deadline.

The choose and book system will be necessary if the NHS is to offer patients a choice of four or five hospitals at the point when they are referred to hospital.

Without it, GPs will not be able to book appointments for their patients on the spot.

Mr Williams said: 'The one thing you never do is implement a major policy change that hinges on technology. That is exactly what we are doing with choose and book.'

He added: 'We are going to need contingency plans because noone is going to change the policy and implementation date just because the technology is not up and running.'

A number of SHAs confirmed Mr Williams' view, although only privately.

However, a spokesperson for the national IT programme insisted the 2005 deadline would be met.

Meanwhile, more concerns are emerging about how choice might be limited or compromised by the choose and book policy framework, released in late August (news, page 3, 9 September).

One SHA choice lead said it hoped to use restrictive choice menus to protect locally developed networks of clinical excellence and limit movement of patients to high-prestige but expensive services in London.

He said: 'Unfettered choice will drive a coach and horses through our locally developed networks of excellence.'

A manager who would be affected by this reacted angrily, saying: 'This would be a complete reversal of government policy.'