• Accenture faces financial penalties for NHSmail shutdown on Saturday
  • Questions raised about why software fault was not detected earlier and why backups failed
  • NHS Digital conducting a review into issues with supplier’s “internal infrastructure”

Consultancy firm Accenture is very likely to face “big penalties” after a software upgrade led to the complete shutdown of the NHS email service, HSJ has been told.

A well placed senior source confirmed the company, which runs NHSmail on behalf of NHS Digital, will be penalised for the shutdown that was linked to a software upgrade which took place several weeks ago.

Accenture had “totally failed” to meet the requirements of its contract with NHS Digital and would face big penalties, HSJ was told by sources familiar with discussions.

HSJ was also told the error should have been detected in testing or in the weeks after the software upgrade. When the failure did occur, backup systems should have kicked in, but did not.

NHS Digital would not comment on the size of any financial penalty, citing commercial sensitivity.

The NHSmail system has more than 1.2 million accounts across England and Scotland and is the default email system for NHS staff.

It suffered a complete shutdown at 12.30pm on Saturday. NHS Digital said a “significant number” of users experienced problems but were not able to confirm the total number of accounts affected.

In response to questions from HSJ on Monday, NHS Digital live services director, Neil Bennett, said the email was restored to most users by 6pm on Saturday and the agency was now conducting a “full post-incident review”. There had been no reports of patient harm as a result of the outage.

“The service is now running as expected with a small number of remedial issues being picked up on a case by case basis,” he added.

The shutdown “was caused by a fault in a third-party hardware device” and was not the result of a cyber-attack, he said.

HSJ has been told the fault occurred in a data centre that host the NHSmail service, which caused a ”memory leakage” over a period of weeks before the complete shutdown caused by the hardware device.

In January, HSJ reported that NHS Digital had penalised another IT supplier, Emis Group, for inaccurately reporting the quality of IT service of NHS GPs. At the time, Emis said the estimated cost of the penalties would be ”in the order of upper single digits of millions of pounds”.

NHSmail moved from BT to Accenture in 2016, after the latter won a £60m contract to run the service.

This is not the first time NHSmail has run into difficulty under Accenture. In November 2016, a fault in the “reply all” function generated more than 840,000 additional emails, overwhelming the system and shutting some users out for several hours.

Accenture was approached for comment for this story but referred questions back to NHS Digital.