NHS Connecting for Health continues to run its own local version of Microsoft Exchange rather than migrating to NHS Contact, the web-based e-mail service it procured for the health service at a total cost of up to £90m.

At Healthcare Computing 2006 last month CfH chief executive Richard Granger castigated NHS trusts for not fully migrating to Contact and switching off their local email systems.

Referring to recent reports on the financial pressures faced by NHS trusts he said trusts should make full use of products that had already been bought for them and not unnecessarily duplicate costs.

Granger said: "Why not take this email service and turn yours off locally?"

However, it turns out that CfH is failing to lead by example and continues to run its own Microsoft Exchange email servers. The agency was unable to tell EHI when it plans to fully move to Contact and make savings by switching off local email systems.

CfH said the email migration was "highly complex". To date just 80,000 NHS staff members are regular users of the service.

The agency declined to say how many of its staff use Contact as their main email service, and in response to questions on when it would migrate to Contact said: "NHS CfH is in the process of migrating from the Microsoft Exchange service to the Contact service, at which point all NHS CfH staff will be daily users of Contact."

The agency was unable to say when this would occur: "The migration will occur over time; the date of the complete migration will be published when all the technical and business issues arising from a highly complex email migration have been resolved and planned to ensure continuity of service for NHS CfH users.

CfH was also unable to put a price on the cost of running its own email, or on how much it could save by migrating to Contact. "Detailed costs of running the email service is not currently separated from other IT support costs."

The overwhelming majority of NHS and CfH emails routinely seen by EHI do not carry the tell-tale nhs.net suffix used by Contact, but instead carry other naming conventions indicating they come from local email systems.

CfH failed to identify a single NHS trust that had fully migrated to the web-based system but said that it was "in the early preparation stages of work with a number of acute trusts, for example, Wirral Hospital NHS Trust".

The agency told EHI that its Contact team "are currently focusing in migrating PCTs to Contact", and named Kingston PCT.

However, Geoffrey Pugh assistant director for informatics at Kingston PCT, told EHI that the organisation was introducing Contact swingeing budget cuts to achieve financial recovery meant "there is now no specific timetable or plan".

"Many staff have taken up the option of Contact and run it as a parallel email, but we’ve got no real project to completely switch to it, as we’re in survival mode," said Pugh.

In a statement the agency said some PCTs "have fully migrated parts of their organisation, for example GP practices, and decommissioned local email exchange servers". It added: "There are thousands of exchange servers within the NHS, and many organisations have a server for each GP practice or site."

According to CfH there are now 163,000 registered users of Contact, 80,000 of who are described as "frequent users".

In a bid to bulk out these registration numbers CfH has announced that all 400,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing working within the NHS, including agency staff, are to be bulk-registered automatically registered on Contact. But while the increased numbers are certain to look good in reports back to ministers, bulk registering staff for a service is very different from getting them to use it.

One of the key advantages of the web-based Contact system over regular email is that it encrypts all messages sent across it, enabling it to be safely used for clinical correspondence.

In 2002 the NHS Information Authority awarded a £90m contract with Electronic Data Systems for a web-based NHSmail email service, but six months after its launch just 25,074 NHS staff (then 2.3%) had activated an account.

NHS Connecting for Health subsequently terminated the contract with EDS, which involved paying EDS £9m in compensation. In 2004 CfH then awarded a new contract to Cable and Wireless for a replacement web-based email service called Contact. The contract was worth an initial £29.5m, rising to £50-90m when a planned number of users sign up for the system.