'Fiasco firms' get £5bn NHS computer contract

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A contract worth £5bn to computerise the health service is likely to be given to a small number of American-dominated firms linked to previous IT fiascos that have dogged Whitehall.

A contract worth £5bn to computerise the health service is likely to be given to a small number of American-dominated firms linked to previous IT fiascos that have dogged Whitehall.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, a Health minister, announced yesterday that the Government would centralise the computerisation of massive projects such as patient records, appointments booking and prescriptions. The move was condemned by the Tories and computer firms, who said it would increase risks of nationwide failure and overspending.

At present, local hospitals and trusts employ their own computer firms to meet their own needs. If one network fails, it does not affect their counterparts.

Critics claim that by centralising IT management, the risk of breakdown is much higher and employing a small number of firms will kill off scores of British IT suppliers.

Lord Hunt did not give details of the projects in his speech to the NHS Assist conference yesterday, but The Independent understands that six big firms will be given the work. Among the companies earmarked are EDS, which has been blamed for problems with the Child Support Agency computers, and Siemens, which was involved with blunders at the Passport Agency and Immigration Directorate.

The others are IBM, which was involved in the National Air Traffic Services computerisation, and Lockheed Martin, which was responsible for the Swanwick air traffic system that was delivered late and over budget. Sema, which has handled ill-starred projects for the Department for Work and Pensions, and BT complete the list. The Treasury has yet to approve the £5bn cost of the projects, but the Department of Health is confident of Downing Street's backing.

The DoH has decided to implement a central control of computerisation because many trusts were behind schedule. The Government has a target of 35 per cent of hospitals to be computerised by April 2002 and all of them by 2005, but only a few have been completed. Computer experts claim that ministers have panicked because their targets were overambitious.

In his speech, Lord Hunt said that the success of NHS Direct had proved that centralising management of nationwide services could work effectively in delivering quality services for patients.

However, government insiders have revealed that the six firms have been approached without a proper tendering process for the huge contract, with some told to work on specific projects.

Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, said the Government's approach was chaotic, and added: "It's alarming to hear claims that this work will be given to companies with a poor track record of providing IT systems to the Government. It would be equally alarming if work is being parcelled up for companies before any proper procurement process."

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