The current version of the NHS smart card, being issued to all NHS staff to enable them to access new computer systems under the £6.2 billion health service IT modernisation programme, is to be upgraded from 2006.

At this stage it is not certain whether all the existing 65,000 smart cards issued so far will be compatible with the new system, or whether some will have to be replaced once the updated smart card and authentication system is introduced.

E-Health Insider has learned that cluster smart card leads expect no more of the current smart cards are expected to be issued this year. A new version of the staff smart card and authentication solution will be issued from 2006, which will require new software to be added to users’ local PCs by local organisations.

An email sent to all cluster registration authority leads earlier this month, seen by E-Health Insider, states that no more smart cards are to be issued this year: "We will not receive any more cards this year," says the email.

It adds: "New cards sometime next year will be from a different supplier and where they are used a new IA [identity agent] may be required, at this time it is expected that the current cards will continue to function."

NHS Connecting for Health denied, however, that there was to be any hold on smart cards being issued and said that registrations would continue this year. "Registrations will continue and we are expecting in excess of 150,000 users to be registered by the end of the year," said a spokeswoman for CfH.

She also said that future releases of the authentication solution would support "all currently registered cards".

The planned upgrade comes as part of ongoing efforts to speed up the user log-in process to spine-connected systems and make it more reliable and less time-consuming. Asked whether CfH was aware of reports of problems with the performance of the current smart cards the spokesperson said: "Performance improvements are being made which will be delivered through 2005 and 2006."

A new version of the spine’s user log-in software, known as an ‘Identity Agent’, is due to be introduced later this month – that will require some smart card users to update their Card Management System (CMS) and smart card readers.

In addition to these changes a further far-reaching redesign of the way smart card and authentication systems are currently underway, with changes to the way the Registration Authority works due by summer 2006.

These will be based on merging the Choice Management System (CMS) – on which all the Choose and Book referrals are made; and Service User Directory (SUD) – the national database of all staff who have been registered. "Sometime next summer the SUD and CMS will merge in a new software package that will change the way RA works," states the email.

Almost 65,000 of the existing smart cards have so far been issued by NHS CfH. The agency says that it expects to have registered more than 150,000 NHS users by the end of 2005.

The smart card and associated readers provide staff with a secure means of identifying themselves to log-on to use the new national IT systems – Choose and Book, NHS Care Records Service and Electronic Transfer of Prescriptions – currently being developed.