'Insiders already knew that the cash figure which health officials cite includes local IT costs which replace existing local IT costs'
The edition of Dod's Parliamentary Companion which I keep by my desk contains just a handful of MPs in any party who list 'information technology' as one of their particular interests. Patricia Hewitt is among them, which may be really useful for getting to grips with the NHS's national programme for IT. Then again it may not.
HSJ has been reporting for years on the dramas surrounding the ambitious plan to wire the NHS for the 21st century. But it surfaces only intermittently in Parliament and - when there's bad news, naturally - in what is known as the popular press.
Stormin' Norman Warner seems to have unburdened himself of the knowledge that NPfIT, now rebranded Connecting for Health, is going to cost£20bn overall to the Financial Times, in order to slip bad news out on a bank holiday. The real bad news in his interview with Nicholas Timmins was that it is running two-and-a-half years late.
Insiders already knew that the cash figure which health officials cite includes local IT costs which replace existing local IT costs. Richard Granger, the NHS's IT czar, has kept the core procurement cost below budget and upset a lot of IT suppliers in the process, they say.
Thirty months late - in other words, 2008 - for the core national records plan ain't bad. But the Daily Beast was bound to go ballistic, as it did. Either way, Lord Warner's remarks coincided with a Radio 4 File on Four analysis, which caught on microphone a pro-Connecting for Health GP inadvertently demonstrating its flaws (he failed to e-book a promised hospital appointment for the BBC reporter).
The programme also anticipated an imminent report from the National Audit Office which is expected to be critical. By convention, the mere facts in an NAO report have to be agreed with the department involved. Czar Richard has been terrier like in defending his record, haggling for the past year. But the Commons Public Accounts Committee plans to hold a hearing on NPfIT later this month. It is this that has forced Whitehall's hands.
It all allowed the newspapers to blame Tony Blair, who said in 1998 it would be nice for a Bradford resident to fall ill in Birmingham and get fully informed treatment. And - at a meeting with Alan Milburn at Number 10 in 2002 - he had 'a Tony moment' and gave the go-ahead for NPfIT: to link 30,000 GPs and 300 hospitals, not to mention their clients.
As Andrew Lansley, the Tory health spokesman who never sleeps, was quick to point out, e-prescriptions and bookings are lagging behind, and the records plan - the NHS's IT 'Big Bang' - was due to work in 2005. As for efficiency savings and confidentiality, hollow laughter.
He called for a review and said it was 'still not to late' to decentralise the scheme, not least by setting up local servers. File on Four did much the same. It savaged choose and book, which many GPs are boycotting, and highlighted a child vaccine crisis in north and east London when BT systems failed to monitor take-up.
I ignored the MPs listed in Dod's and went for a chat with Labour's Derek Wyatt, MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and an IT buff. Alas for Ms Hewitt, the MP is scathing about what he dismisses as 'a completely mad idea' that will have no proper back-up and be vulnerable to terrorist disruption.
Mr Wyatt rattles off past government IT disasters - the Passport Agency (now working) and crises over the Child Support Agency and tax credits for people on low wages. 'You need about 25 regional centres for the NHS and, if they'd started at primary care trust level, I'd be more confident,' he says, predicting that the proposed ID card system will also prove 'impossible'.
It is not just ministers and civil servants who do not understand the limits of the software and fall unwisely in love with the technology.The big corporations they buy it from - the IBMs, EDSs and Hewlett Packards - don't understand it either, says Mr Wyatt, a beefy ex-rugby Blue at Oxford. Nokia could have given us a very cheap system on our phone sim cards, he adds.
But that's another story.
Michael White is assistant editor (politics) at The Guardian