Failed at the NHS? Try again at HS2: Newly appointed director at rail project has history of 'wasting public money'

  • @MLeftly

One of the most heavily criticised men behind the NHS's IT fiasco has been made a director at High Speed Two, the similarly under fire £50bn railway linking London with the north.

Opponents of HS2, who claim the project is a waste of money and will ruin the countryside, reacted with fury this weekend to an appointment they claimed was a "whitewash" and "hysterical". Patrick O'Connell's appointment comes at a time when HS2 is preparing a public relations charm offensive to spell out the benefits of the project, which will cut journey times between the capital and Birmingham to 49 minutes.

HS2 staff were told late last week that Mr O'Connell will soon join them as their programme and strategy boss, but the only part of his resumé that was referred to was his role as chairman at the Oxford Institute for Megaprojects. Up until the end of last year, Mr O'Connell was a senior figure at Serco, the government contractor that has been forced to go through what it calls "corporate renewal", after failing on a range of taxpayer-funded projects.

As well as only recently leaving what is arguably Britain's most vilified company, Mr O'Connell had two stints as president at BT Health.

He was hauled in front of MPs in 2011 to explain the disastrous overhaul of the NHS IT systems, which included developing a standardised electronic care record for every patient. This programme was said to have wasted £2.7bn of taxpayers' money and was a major factor in BT's £1.6bn write-off two years earlier.

Liberal Democrat MP Ian Swales said at the time that the very public embarrassment was "about the management of some kind of superstructure that is going wrong – badly wrong".

A subsequent report attacked BT Health for being "clearly" overpaid and "unable to deliver against its original contract" – although Mr O'Connell was not in charge when the deal was signed in 2003.

A spokesman for the High Speed Action Alliance, which has criticised the coalition for invoking secrecy laws to suppress what is thought to be a damning report into the railway, said: "Along with the Government's desperate attempts to hide the truth on the parlous state of HS2 as a whole, whitewashing Mr O'Connell's career is another example of how HS2 Ltd and the Government [acts] over the failing project.

"Mr O'Connell's role in the NHS IT contract clearly shows that he is used to spending taxpayer money rather than investing it properly. It is hysterical."

At Serco, Mr O'Connell was president of major programmes for Europe and the UK, charged with improving the operational efficiency of the company. The Cabinet Office only deemed Serco to be fit enough to be again allowed to win public sector work at the end of last month.

This followed a string of high-profile disasters in 2013, most notably Serco's role in the £50m electronic-tagging scandal. The state was charged for the supposed tagging of criminals who were back in prison, and even dead.

An HS2 spokesman said: "Patrick O'Connell's appointment as interim Programme and Strategy Director helps to strengthen the team as we move towards the construction phase."