A new guidance letter from NHS England to trusts on industrial action suggests that planned investment for frontline digitisation may be pulled from all but the least digitised trusts.

The planned funds will be diverted to form part of £800m nationally redirected to ICBs to help offset the impact of strike action. “This is intended to support systems with financial pressures and risks including but not limited to industrial action,” says the letter.

The letter implies that only the least digitised trusts will now receive expected investment from the frontline digitisation programme.

Digital Health News understands that the potential diversion of frontline digitisation funds was briefed on NHSE’s weekly CIO call on Tuesday.

The Frontline Digitisation programme, which was originally budgeted at £2.6billion over three years, is intended to support NHS trusts to reach a core level of digitisation.

In August 2023 it was revealed that the programme had been reduced by more than £630m in the 2022-23 year, according to information released by government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority. This reduced the programme funding from £2.6 billion to £2 billion.

NHS England categorises trusts into four descending groups – three, two, one and zero – on their digital maturity on electronic patient records (EPRs), with group zero trusts having no EPRs and one having a business case for an EPR.

The new NHSE letter says: “funding for frontline digitisation in category 0 and 1 providers will be prioritised”, indicating that the 132 group two trusts, who had been promised money to optimise or extend their EPRs will no longer receive investment.

Digital Health News understands that many of the trusts had already signed MOUs with NHS England for the funds, which had been included in budget plans.

Addressing IT and technology the letter states: We will communicate decisions and implications as soon as possible following national decisions. However we expect that funding for Mobile First – Wayfinder will remain available in line with commitments to systems, and that funding for frontline digitisation in category 0 and 1 providers will be prioritised.

The letter goes on to state: “Underspends or reprofiling within these programmes are however unlikely to be available for local reprioritisation”.

Paul Jones, CDIO at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS trust and chair of the CIO Network Advisory Panel said: “The priority of FD should always have been on those Trusts without an EPR or those trusts where the electronic patient record is end-of-life, the broader investment around HIMMS Level 5 was always somewhat arbitrary and not backed by a clear benefits case.

“Having said that many trusts in category two will already have committed funds and so to withdraw these at this point in the financial year is simply going to put additional pressures on trust budgets.”

Responding to questions on the Frontline Digitisation budget the NHSE press office said: “We are utilising some funding left over from wider departmental budgets. Any changes to overall tech and capital budgets will be worked through in further detail and will be confirmed in the usual way.”

A new post on the NHSE website from Julian Kelly, Chief Financial Officer , NHS England, meanwhile states “The impact of the more than 40 days of industrial action this financial year has created unavoidable financial costs that we estimate to be around £1 billion, with an equivalent loss of elective activity”.