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NHS England’s flagship tech budget to digitise hospitals will be underspent this year, prompting fresh concern about crucial transformation funding not reaching the frontline.

HSJ understands the NHS is on course for a significant underspend in Frontline Digitisation programme funding for 2023-24, despite national officials trying to improve the way central funds are made available to trusts.

NHS England refused to set out the exact amount of underspend or answer questions about it.

But sources told HSJ that NHSE Frontline Digitisation programme chief Dermot Ryan raised concerns earlier in 2024 with local chief information officers about significant delays to trusts drawing down their allocations. HSJ understands NHSE believes some providers have misunderstood when and how both capital and revenue funding could be accessed.

The regulator has already contacted trusts to warn of the impending underspend, which it sought to minimise by offering trusts the chance to submit extra bids. Any capital funding not spent by the end of March cannot be carried over to 2024-25.

However, trusts have told NHSE the process of accessing the national fund is too cumbersome and laborious, which has led to delays in fulfilling the nationally-set criteria.

This is despite the Frontline Digitisation budget being set for three years (2022-23, 2023-24, and 2024-25) which NHSE chiefs had hoped would lead to more clarity on funding and the ability to release it earlier in the financial year.

It comes following successive in-year cuts to the tech budget in the last few years, and another large capital-to-revenue transfer this year to balance deficits in day-to-day spending. Last week the chancellor earmarked £3.4bn funding for tech transformation from 2025-26 to 2027-28, in what was touted as a major investment, which will replace the Frontline Digitisation fund, whose last year is 2024-25.

The vast majority of the Frontline Digitisation money has been earmarked for electronic patient records, which are a crucial part of the “minimum digital foundations” all trusts must comply with by 2025-26. NHSE said 90 per cent of trusts had an EPR in place by December last year, which marked the achievement of a tech target set by former health secretary Sajid Javid in 2022.

But the second target — all trusts having fully implemented EPRs by March next year — has been pushed back to the end of 2025-26 following tech budget cuts.

The Frontline Digitisation budget was initially £2.6bn, but this was cut by £700m in 2022. It was cut further in this financial year, though no new figure has been given.

Source: HSJ

Date: 12 March

Posted in News on Mar 12, 2024

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