Health Secretary Alan Milburn used a Microsoft-sponsored Department of Health (DH) IT conference attended by Bill Gates to pledge an extra £85m for NHS IT in 2002-2003.

Health secretary Alan Milburn admitted on 6 December 2001 that hard pressed hospitals had diverted IT allocations last year to meet other priorities. "I should have earmarked it last year, on reflection that was probably a mistake," he told the conference.

Milburn said that IT will be central to NHS modernisation, and could no longer preserve of the anorak. "Interest in IT can no longer be an add-on or optional extra".

While the extra money was welcomed by delegates, questions raised during the Q&A sessions highlighted growing tensions between a move to centrally imposed projects; and local development of systems, within agreed national frameworks, to ensure local buy in and acceptance from clinicians.

Milburn announced just one newish target: to put a computer on every consultant’s desk by September 2002 – a variation on the previously announced connectivity targets for clinicians.

He also made clear that discussions were underway on a whole series of new public private partnerships to help deliver modern IT systems for the NHS. "We need industrial strength IT systems to help deliver on projects like EPR," said Milburn.

The most significant of these new partnerships looks to be with ‘Project Lightbulb’, a heavyweight new consortium of Microsoft, BT, Cisco Systems, CSW, Newchurch, Schlumberger-Sema, UltraGenda and KPMG Consulting, who will together develop "a common integration framework" to help achieve information sharing by NHS organisations.

Industry rumour — unconfirmed by the DH or Project Lightbulb members — suggests that the consortia are negotiating a project to develop a cancer EPR in the Midlands, which could then be used as a template to fast-track subsequent EPR implementations.

Other companies named by Milburn as potential partners included US giant Lockheed Martin, better known for making fighter planes, and UK e-government dotcom firm iMPOWER.

Areas of the UK named for possible new heavyweight partnership projects included the Midlands, Northwest and East of England.

Milburn met with Gates during his London trip, and according to a report in the Financial Times, the two discussed how Microsoft could provide e-learning software for the new National Health Service "university" that will offer online training for more than 1 million staff.