The future of the National Programme for IT in the NHS has been plunged into doubt after the Chancellor of the Exchequer singled it out as a suitable candidate for cuts.

Speaking ahead of the Pre-Budget Report, Alistair Darling made it clear that he believed there were savings to be made, and bluntly stated that he viewed the programme as expensive and unnecessary. NPfIT “isn’t essential to the frontline”, the Chancellor told the Andrew Marr show.

However, the Financial Times today quotes a Department of Health spokesperson refuting the idea that the world’s largest civil IT programme is about to be scrapped, going as far as to say “the chancellor mis-spoke".

The report goes on to quote un-named Treasury officials as saying the government was looking for "significant savings" of up to perhaps £600m over the medium term by cutting back on some features of the project that are less important to patients.

A more joined up message was later provided to E-Health Insider by a government spokesperson, who said options have been examined and that an announcement is due soon.

"The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Health have examined options for savings on the NHS IT system and more details will be set out in due course."

Jonathan Edwards, director of health research for IT industry analysts Gartner, told EHI: “I find it really surprising. It sounds like he’s simplifying something much more complex; it’s not a single programme but a series of projects.”

The end of November saw the deadline for five tests set by Christine Connelly, the DH chief informatics officer, on the delivery and progress towards delivery by Cerner and iSoft respectively of ‘strategic’ electronic record systems to hospitals.

But the final decision on the future of the programme lies not with Connelly, but her boss NHS chief executive David Nicholson and his political masters, who are desperate to identify significant public spending cuts.