Roll-out of the government's flagship electronic booking system for hospital appointments is a year behind schedule, the NHS chief executive has admitted to MPs.
Sir Nigel Crisp told the public accounts committee yesterday that patient choice would go ahead from the end of next month, but most appointments would be booked manually by patients' GPs.
Confirmation that the system is woefully behind schedule will not surprise GPs. A leaked Department of Health email published last month admitted that not a single primary care trust in England was expected to meet the government target for offering patients an electronic booking service by 2006.
The "choose and book" project is part of the National Health Service's £6.2bn IT programme, which the government promised would offer an electronic booking service under the patient choice agenda.
The system was due to be rolled out by January 1 next year, when patients will be offered the choice of at least four or five hospital providers for outpatient appointments.
Sir Nigel told the panel of MPs the full airline-type booking system was "running about 12 months late and blanket electronic bookings were now unlikely before December 2006", according to a report in yesterday's Financial Times
The system has been held up by GPs' reluctance to use the new system and by hospitals that have been slow to put all the booking slots online.
However, as more GPs came into contact with the system their attitudes changed, Sir Nigel said. In some parts of the country half of all outpatient appointments were now being booked that way.
"It is moving fast," he told MPs. "We will have a much better position in two to three months' time."
The select committee also heard from representatives of the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners, who reported that busy GPs were still worried about the extra time the system would take to use.
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