The turbulent £2.3bn NHS IT modernisation scheme has hit yet another obstacle as healthcare VARs look for reassurances that the departure of another large supplier from the tender process will not see the juiciest contracts being cherry-picked.
Last week saw the departure of consulting giant EDS as it was 'deselected' from the competition to build an electronic appointment booking system for the NHS. This follows Lockheed Martin's withdrawal from bidding for the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) in the NHS contracts two weeks earlier.
Large IT services firms are supposed to act as prime contractors for the NHS. In turn they will award parts of the contracts to smaller, specialist VARs and suppliers.
But with large suppliers dropping out, potential second-tier suppliers are concerned that without adequate controls the remaining bidders will sub-contract only the unattractive parts of the programme.
"This is absolutely catastrophic. There is no information about how the process is going to be managed, and what will prevent the best deals from being cherry-picked," said John Griffith, consulting director at Compusys.
Griffith called for Richard Granger, director general of NHS IT, to meet second-tier suppliers to calm their fears, and provide more information.
But the Conservative Party's spokesman for health, Chris Grayling, blamed ministers for pressuring Granger into setting unrealistic goals.
"There are huge political pressures to get this right. Granger has been forced to attach stringent conditions to the contracts that companies are saying they can't meet," said Grayling.
"We have been concerned for a while that politics is becoming more important than practicalities."
A representative for the NPfIT insisted the decision to deselect EDS was a normal part of procurement procedures.
But Anthony Miller, research manager at analyst Ovum Holway, said: "It is worrying when the largest suppliers feel unable to compete. These contracts have to make commercial sense for both sides. Screwing the supplier as hard as you can on price is not a recipe for success."
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