The NHS will announce its controversial patient number database contract just before Christmas, seemingly in an attempt to muffle criticism from privacy campaigners and doctors' groups.
The contract is the long delayed national tracing service for the new NHS patient identity number scheme, which critics describe as, "a building block for a national identity card scheme."
Sema, the second largest European IT services firm, has won the contract by beating specialist healthcare firm HBOC and a consortium headed by IBM.
Sema said that it could not comment until the NHS had cleared the announcement.
The NHS said that it had 'signed a letter of intent' but that the contract had not been formally signed. A NHS spokesman said an announcement was likely "by the end of the year".
The number tracing service has been in the offing for six years. In December 1992, the NHS decided to replace existing identity numbers, which had around 20 different formats, with a new 10 digit unique number. The original justification was the Conservative government's 'internal market'.
The number system is now a key part of the Labour government's seven year IT strategy, published in September. The NHS executive's information management group says that unique numbers are essential to measure the effectiveness of medical procedures.
Officials say that identifying records by number will reduce the risk of unauthorised access. Critics say that while numbers offer protection from casual snooping, they could allow a corrupt doctor or NHS employee to find any individual's file.
The NHS executive says that the tracing service will be subject to, "strict protocols to define which individuals are authorised to gain access to patient identity." However, one long-standing critic, the BMA, still has reservations. "We remain uncomfortable with the concept," said Grant Kelly of the BMA's GP committee.
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