The Cabinet Office has been asked to agree an extension to the current NHSmail contract to allow more time for a replacement to be procured.

In an interview with eHealth Insider, Alex Abbott, the chief technology officer of the NHS Commissioning Board, said it was looking for an extension to the current contract, which runs out in June.

He also indicated the board is now “leaning” towards giving the contract to a single supplier, instead of using multiple suppliers, as deputy government chief information officer Liam Maxwell indicated it might at EHI Live 2012.

“Having a range of suppliers was something that we looked at, but now we think that any benefits that we would gain might be outweighed by the extra difficulty of the integration involved,” he said. “We are leaning towards working with a single supplier.”

NHSmail was one of the first, national services to be delivered after the launch of the National Programme for IT in the NHS, promising a national directory service and an email address for life.

It’s provider, Cable and Wireless, moved it off the Mirapoint platform and onto the Microsoft Exchange 2007 platform in 2009, and since then sign-ups have grown steadily if slowly.

Abbott said NHSmail now has 800,000 registered users, of which 500,000 use it regularly, with 15,000 new users coming on board each month.

He said around 150 organisations use it as their primary email service, and another 300 use it to some extent.

In the reprocurement, he said he would be looking to overcome some of the persistent complaints about the service – such as the small size of its mail boxes – and to make it a compelling offer for NHS organisations.

“If we had completely interoperable systems, then we might not need it,” Abbot said. “But as it is NHSmail still underpins the NHS information strategy, because it is the only secure method for transferring clinical data electronically.

“What we want to do is make it more able to meet the needs of the user community by listening to them and taking their views into account, so there is a better case for using NHSmail than for not using it.”

Abbott said the board is looking at a cloud-based version of NHSmail to reduce costs, and at working with other government departments.

He also said it is looking to procure a “commodity” service, with extras – such as larger mailboxes and service enhancements – that organisations could take if they wanted, at an additional cost.

Other ideas that have been floated, including a Dropbox-style store for large files and attachements, are still being considered.

The extension to the current contract is likely to be for 12 months with three month break points.

Abbot said he hoped to be in a position to buy-through the government G-Cloud framework by this summer, so a timeline for procurement can be framed up this autumn, and a new service put in place next year.