Concerns are growing over the missing £100 million NHS global digital exemplar funds, promised to 16 leading NHS digital hospital trusts.
Parallel concerns exist about the future of the mental health exemplar programme as delays mount and funding pushes into the next financial year.
The two global digital exemplar programmes represent the first promised elements of the £4 billion investment committed by the government. Delays or scaling back of investment in trust digitisation would raise questions over the whole of the promised investment.
Senior NHS IT leaders close to the programme have told Digital Health News that they are concerned that the digital exemplar funds may have been raided by Treasury or been clawed back to plug the NHS financial deficit.
Digital Health News first reported delays in the central funding getting to exemplar trusts in January.
Sources say they are unable to get any clear guidance on when promised funding will be provided, making it impossible to plan investments.
“It’s reminiscent of Tech Fund 2 all over again,” one NHS leader said.
The £240 million integrated digital care technology fund, known as Tech Fund 2, was slashed to just £43 million in 2015, falling victim to building a fighting fund to cope with ‘winter pressures’. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said at the time the fund would likely return. They have yet to eventuate.
Another NHS IT leader from an acute trust said they now faced “no choice but to slow down or stop planned digital programmes” rather than proceed further at risk with planned acceleration projects.
They added that the lack of communication and guidance from the centre was unusual. “It’s really worrying, and it places us at significant risk.”
Up to £10 million per trust was first promised by NHS England in September 2016, following the publication Bob Wachter’s review of NHS IT.
Trusts had to commit match funding, and were told by NHS England they would have draw down the first slice of national funding in the current financial year. No funding has yet been awarded, with the financial year drawing to a close.
Another acute trust IT leader said it now looked certain there would be no money before the end of March.
“NHS England asked us about the impact of capital funding previously expected in 16/17 moving into 17/18. But there is no suggestion that this is anything other than adjusting for a shortfall in 16/17 capital, so we remain optimistic.”
Similar concerns have also been raised about the status of the mental health digital exemplars, six trusts that will, in theory, receive £5 million each of central digital funding.
A decision on the mental health exemplars is understood to have been made a month ago, but no announcement has been made by NHS England.
One source close to a prospective mental health exemplar trust said they understood selection decisions had been taken a month ago and has been held up ever since. “We were told it was first with Cabinet Office, then PM and now Treasury. I’m getting quite worried.”
Having initially been told to expect the first slice of funding this year they have now been told there will be no money this year. “There had been talk that would need to spend £1m this financial year and now been told don’t worry about that.”
A reflection of the slipping timetable has been the cancellation of key national meetings for exemplars. “There was a big meeting in London in mid-Feb that was cancelled and now there must be a question over the 20-21 March meeting.”
One NHS IT leader from a non-exemplar trust questioned. “If they are finding it this difficult to get money out of the door for the exemplars, the prestige part of NHS digitisation plans, then it really doesn’t look very encouraging for the chances of all the non-exemplar trusts. What about the rest of the NHS?”
In a statement provided to Digital Health News, Will Smart, NHS chief information officer, said: “We remain absolutely committed to the Global Digital Exemplar programme and hope to be in a position to set out next steps for delivery shortly.”