The government has signed a deal with Microsoft to provide Windows XP support and security updates for the entire public sector, including the NHS.

Support for the obsolete operating system, which was first released in 2001, is due to end next Tuesday, 8 April, and there has been considerable concern about how this might affect the health service.

Research by EHI Intelligence calculated that approximately 85% of the 800,000 PCs in the NHS were still running XP in September last year.

Computing reports that the new deal has been negotiated by the Crown Commercial Service, which was set up by the Cabinet Office to act as a single, public-sector wide purchasing and commercial operation, to give trusts a year’s breathing space.

However, to make use of it, trusts with more than 250 Windows XP users will need a premier support agreement with Microsoft, and to have a “robust” migration plan to move off XP, Office 2003, and Exchange 2003 within a year.

Sarah Hurrell, the commercial director for IT and telecoms at the CCS, has said that the deal will save at least £20m on government departments negotiating direct with the company and that: “The NHS is very grateful for this deal.”

The NHS is a big XP user for a number of reasons, including the support provided by the Microsoft Enterprise-wide Agreement that was allowed to expire in 2010 and the number of clinical applications written specially for the OS.

Trusts that have migrated off XP ahead of Tuesday’s end of support deadline have indicated that it is a long and complex job, involving significant investment, staff training, and measures to quarantine applications that cannot be put onto new platforms.

The head of IM&T at University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, Andrew Hooper, which has migrated its PCs to Windows 7, told EHI recently that large trusts would need as much as two years to complete the process.

He warned that trusts that had not started their migrations were just “prolonging the agony and making the pain even greater.”

Andrew Sharrad, group technical services manager for Stone Group, which provides PCs to the public sector, said there had been a sense of urgency about the end of support a year ago, but it had slipped down the agenda as organisations realised they would not be able to move in time.

“We do not really know what will happen when support ends,” he said. “But XP is not engineered to face the big security threats that we see these days. People should not take their foot off the gas. They need to get off XP.”

Jim Docherty, the public sector sales director at Dell Software Group, also said organisations had been adopting an increasingly “fractionalised” set of responses, including straightforward migration to more modern operating systems, virtualised desktops, and mobile options.

“Even so, I think people recognise that the need to progress this, because XP is a broken product. It is full of hopes and gaps and there are better ways of doing business,” he said.

A spokesperson for Microsoft said in a statement: “"We have made an agreement with the Crown Commercial Service to provide eligible UK public sector organisations with the ability to download security updates to Windows XP, Office 2003 and Exchange 2003 for one year until 8 April 2015. 

“Agreements such as these do not remove the need to move off Windows XP as soon as possible.” 

The Register has estimated that the NHS element of the deal will cost in the region of £30m – £40m. EHI has asked the Department of Health to confirm the deal and to provide additional comment.