Health leaders have given a cautious welcome to the Spring budget’s announcement of £3.4 billion of investment in NHS digitisation.

The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claimed the £3.4bn would amount to a doubling of national investment and help “modernise NHS IT systems so they are as good as the best in the world”.

In an NHS with a budget approaching £170 billion a year the investment amounts to less than half of one perfect of annual budget.
The prospect of extra money was welcomed by NHS leaders but there was caution about past promised monies failing to materialise, including in the current year when £350m in funds for frontline digitisation were slashed by NHSE to cover costs of strike action. Further promised investment in innovation has also been slashed.

Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Health Foundation, said: “An extra £3.4 billion in capital spending to boost NHS technology is a welcome and significant investment in the health service, though it won’t kick in until 2025/26, after the General Election.”

But Dr Dixon noted that past promises on investment in buildings and technology have not materialised. “NHS history is littered with promises to spend more on capital and technology, budgets which have then been raided to pay for short-term pressures, so it’s essential that this money is spent as intended.”

Matthew Taylor, CEO of NHS Confederation, said: “The £3.4bn additional investment in technology over the next Parliament has the potential to improve patient care and staff productivity as it will help to replace outdated IT systems that keep those on the frontline from spending more time with patients. Meanwhile, extending Electronic Patient Records to all hospitals will help to support joined up care across services.”

But he noted that the NHS’s crumbling estates needed fresh investment too. “This is why we have called for a £6.4bn annual capital funding increase for the NHS. Some of this may be covered by the Government’s NHS productivity plan, but new computers sat in outdated estates is far from ideal and much more funding will be required.”

Sir Julian Hartley, CEO of NHS providers, meanwhile, said immediately ahead of the budget, “Better funding for innovation and technology could unlock the potential for digital advancements to streamline processes and enhance patient care. But we need to invest in the basics – core digital and IT infrastructure – before channelling the bulk of resources into newer technologies like artificial intelligence.”

This message of the vital need to prioritise investment on core IT infrastructure was in the open letter NHS CIOs, CCIOs, CNIOs, sent to Secretary of State and NHS England CEO at the start of the year.

Paul Jones, chair of the CIO Network said: “It’s good to see that that scale of investment is recognised but disappointing the investment is not planned to begin until after the general election.  I hope the vast majority of the money finds its way to the front line to allow local teams to use it for their priorities and that it doesn’t get caught up in national initiatives that don’t reflect the priorities the Digital Health Network Leaders articulated in January”

The money if it does indeed materialise, is tied to achieving ambitious productivity improvements, which have proved stubbornly elusive in the NHS, particularly since the pandemic.

NHSE CEO Amanda Pritchard said: “Adopting the latest technology is already having an impact on the way we deliver services for patients – including getting your prescriptions on the NHS App and virtual wards which let people recover at home.

“The significant [£3.4bn] investment in capital to fund new technology means the NHS can now commit to deliver two per cent annual productivity growth in the final two years of the next Parliament, which will unlock tens of billions of savings.”

NHSE which has been lobbying behind the scenes for tech investment, is expected to set out plans for what it will mean for productivity, by the summer.

Matthew Taylor and Sir Julian Hartley will be keynote speakers at Digital Health Rewired next week.

Matthew Taylor, speaking at Digital Health Rewired 2024. 12 March 9:45am-10:45am.

Sir Julian Hartley, speaking at Digital Health Rewired 2024. 13 March 3pm-4pm.