Plans for a controversial NHS database drawn from GP medical records have suffered another blow, with a further delay to setting it up.
In February, health chiefs bowed to pressure by putting back the collection of data from surgeries until the autumn - admitting more time was needed to convince patients.
The hold-up followed widespread criticism that the public had been "left in the dark" over the database and had not received the leaflets explaining the project.
At the time, NHS England said it believed measures to "build public confidence", plus quality testing of the data, would allow it to plough ahead in October.
But, now, Tim Kelsey, the organisation's national director for patients and information, has abandoned the deadline for a national scheme altogether. Instead, NHS England will "work with between 100 and 500 GP practices in the autumn to test, evaluate and refine the data collection process ahead of a national roll out".
Kelsey said; "We do not subscribe to artificial deadlines here - we will roll it out nationally only when we are sure the process is right."
However, the national director mounted a strong defence of the care.data database, arguing it would:
* Ensure the highest standards of care and clinical safety are met - or allow commissioners to "shout loudly and respond quickly if standards drop".
* Reveal what happens to people cared for outside of hospital and whether their needs are being met.
* Support researchers to develop new medicines and improve understanding and treatment of disease.
Kelsey said laws were already in place to ensure "robust independent scrutiny" of the scheme, preventing any uses that are not for the benefit of patients. "An organisation that wanted to handle the data on its own premises would need to demonstrate it could safely do so, or risk being barred from doing so."
It was not clear why NHS England is now only planning to begin a trial scheme in the autumn, rather than testing the data earlier - as originally intended.
Ministers and health experts say the database is needed to improve medical research and identify poor NHS care more quickly.
But critics have leapt on ministers' announcements that records - albeit, anonymised - can also be sold to health companies and drug manufacturers. There are fears that creating an enormous database will inevitably lead to sensitive medical information falling into the wrong hands.