Chancellor Alastair Darling is set to announce “delays” to parts of the £12 billion NHS IT project in England in his pre-Budget Report tomorrow (December 9).

The elements to the National Programme for IP (NPfIT) which will be delayed are those deemed “not essential to the front line,” the Chancellor said, speaking on the BBC1 Andrew Marr Show at the weekend. The Service’s “quite expensive” IT system is “something I think we don’t need to go ahead with just now,” he added.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham has told Parliament that the cutbacks will save £600 million over NPfIT’s lifetime costs and allow NHS trusts to develop their own systems. “In the current climate, it is right to look again at efficiencies and value for money on all big projects,” he told MPs. The programme will be “pared back to its core elements,” but the benefits of a national approach, including electronic prescribing, will be retained, he said.

Mr Burnham defended NPfIT to the House, describing it as “a key part of delivering modern, safe, joined-up healthcare. It is supporting the ongoing reforms of the NHS by giving choice and convenience to patients. The NHS could not function without it."

He also emphasised that the government has “no intention whatsoever” of cancelling the programme overall, not least because “it is already making the NHS safer, more efficient and more convenient for patients.” Nevertheless, he added: "we are discussing with our suppliers potential reductions to the scope of the systems and the cost savings that could be generated,” although he could not give any details of these discussions for reasons of commercial sensitivity.

NPfIT represents the second-largest IT investment in the UK and has long been criticized for implementation delays and overspending. Originally estimated to cost £2.3 billion, by 2013-14 its 10-year bill is expected to total £12.4 billion.

Conservative health spokesman Andrew Lansley said the programme should have been decentralized and attacked the government for taking central control of it - “£7.5bn central contracts, £5bn of associated costs on top of that,” - he said. Seven years on, NPfIT is over-budget and under-delivered, and the electronic patients record system “is four years late at the very best, if ever,” Mr Lansley declared.

The British Medical Association (BMA) responded to the news by saying that it would await more details of how cost savings will be achieved. It agreed that NPfIT had, in its early stages, been characterised by poor value for money, but warned that cutting back now would not be as simple as it might seem, given that contracts are already in place.

Good IT is central to efficient, effective, safe patient care, and the BMA welcomes the government’s commitment that the systems which clinicians find most useful will not be scrapped, said Dr Grant Ingrams, chairman of the BMA's GP IT Committee. “Many of the errors that take place in the NHS could be prevented through improved information systems,” he added.

Moreover, before making cuts that affect front-line care, Dr Ingrams called on politicians to re-examine the role of the private sector in the NHS. “The use of independent sector treatment centres and external management consultants should be questioned before we scale back on technology that allows clinicians to provide care safely,” he said.