this week

Primary care group representatives have welcomed the Department of Health's abandonment of its plan to force all GPs on to the NHS private communications network, NHSnet, by the end of this year.

NHS planning director Alasdair Liddell announced the about-turn last week, after heavy and continuous pressure from doctors and PCG representatives since the£50m GPnet programme was officially launched in April.

Practices will still have to achieve NHSnet connection by 2002. But it will have to be done in a more sophisticated form than originally planned - combined with local networking of their office machines.

This allowed the government to trumpet that 'doctor desktop' computers were to be provided for every GP.

Each health authority will be given a set of milestone targets to ensure it meets the final deadline, according to project director Bob Grindrod.

The NHS PCG Alliance had supported the idea of connecting GPs, but warned that the earlier deadline would have resulted in many practices being left with an unusable 'white box in the corner', separate from GP practice systems.

'HAs were being rushed into placing immense orders on nothing but a wing and a prayer,' said council member Ron Singer.

'We feared the result would be overloading of the network, and messaging between practices would be far too slow. We've now got time to find technically better ways to reach the goal.'

Chief officer Michael Sobanja described the project's original timescale as 'unworkable' and said it did not take enough account of past inequities of funding, technical issues and the wishes of GPs.

The main complaint of the British Medical Association's GP committee had been that NHSnet's unusual e-mail system, X400, would force practices to log on to the network many times a day, running up telephone bills of up to£2,000 a year. These costs would not be directly reimbursed from the centre.

Many GPs also regard the system - run by BT and Cable & Wireless - as technically unreliable.

Dr Laurie Miles, a Merseyside GP and PCG board member who has used NHSnet regularly, said its performance would have been unacceptable if delivered by a commercial Internet service provider.

Mr Grindrod acknowledged that NHSnet performance has been an issue: 'We are working with suppliers to ensure quality comes up to the mark.'