Health secretary Andy Burnham has launched a spirited defence of the National Programme for IT in the NHS in the House of Commons.

In an emergency statement on the future of the programme triggered by comments made by Chancellor Alastair Darling on Sunday, Burnham said the programme was a “key part of the modernisation of the NHS” and that the health service could not function without it.

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, the Chancellor had indicated that NPfIT was “not essential to the frontline” and that it might be something “we do not need to go ahead with right now.”

However, Burnham indicated that the Chancellor had not been talking about the whole programme or even whole projects within it.

He said that given the “current economic climate” he and senior officials had been looking at spending across the Department of Health. He said this included spending on IT and this was “what the Chancellor talked about yesterday.”

Burnham said £600m would be saved from the £12.7 billion programme, which had spent £4.5 billion as of the end of the financial year.

E-Health Insider understands that this money will come from “back office” savings in the way that the programme itself is run and from looking again at the scope of some planned systems.

For example, GPs and NHS trusts may be given more scope to retain and build on existing systems, instead of having to replace them with NPfIT functionality when it is available.

“We are discussing with our suppliers potential reductions to the scope of the systems and the cost savings that could be generated,” Burnham told the Commons, although he insisted that the details had to remain confidential.

At the end of his statement, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley invited his counterpart to “have the grace to admit that the programme has been an abject failure” that had “stifled IT innovation in hospitals.”

However, Burnham said the programme had delivered significant benefits, such as digital imaging, that were recognised by clinicians.

In a surprise move, one of the British Medical Association’s GP leaders and IT spokesmen backed the programme this morning. The BMA has been a critic of the programme and repeated its call for it to be scrapped earlier this year.

But Dr Grant Ingrams, chair of the GP Committee’s IT subcommittee, said savings would be better made elsewhere in the NHS.

“I think it’s short-sighted, I think it’s going to waste money," he said. "The way it was procured years ago was wrong, and could have been done better – but now it’s getting to a point where it’s likely to be rolled out very soon.”

Burnham told Lansley that he should “listen to what doctors are saying” before making “sweeping statements” about the national programme. He also repeated denials that the programme was over budget, insisting that its contracts meant “we get what we pay for.”

Burnham listed the programme’s achievements as: digital imaging, the Choose and Book, electronic prescription service and GP2GP systems and Summary Care Records, which he said would make “key information” available to clinicians.