At last, the UK has a mass-market digital identity system - now let's use it

Great news for all those who have followed the troubles and travails of digital identity in the UK for the past couple of decades.

Finally, we have a digital ID system, developed in the public sector, that is used by as many as half of the UK’s adult population. That’s a significant milestone.

However, it’s not the 21-year old Government Gateway – that’s getting by on just the 16 million or so adults. Nor – surprise, surprise! – is it the £230m Verify, whose seven million accounts are being slowly put out of their misery, although its final demise for new users has been put back yet again, for a further eight months, until the end of 2022.

Nor is it any of the other 44 different ways to sign-on to online government services identified by the Cabinet Office that are currently in use, nor the 191 different ways to set up a user account on

Congratulations instead go to the NHS Login service, which now has 28 million users – a staggering increase from 2.2 million a year ago.

This inevitably raises some significant questions, not least:

  • Why is the Government Digital Service planning to spend up to £400m to come up with yet another new way to log in to online public services?
  • Why can’t NHS Login just be adapted so those 28 million users can use it to access other services?

The success of NHS Login also highlights some important points about digital identity in the UK:

This rapid growth has come about because of a clear user need that drove adoption – it’s the way we prove who we are to the NHS App, which contains our Covid-19 jab records, and hence the proof of our vaccination status.

The service has been easy to use and set up, primarily because it uses a unique identifier that already exists for every one of us, from birth – our NHS number (but you can still set up an NHS Login account if you don’t know the number, it just takes a little longer). So why can’t we use our NHS number to prove who we are on other government digital identity systems?

One current downside to NHS Login is that it’s an NHS England service. The Scottish government is doing its own thing with digital identity – a fact that, rumour has it, the Scots recently had to point out to the Westminster government to consider as part of its future plans for digital ID.

But with progress being made on the digital identity trust framework by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS), one presumes the NHS Login service will be conformant to the standards embodied in that framework, so it should in theory therefore be compatible with any service that uses a framework-compliant login?

If, for some reason, it turns out NHS Login is not compatible – then that rather raises questions about why DCMS would be creating a framework that excludes what is now the UK’s most successful digital ID system.

And given that NHS Login is used to give secure access to our most important personal data – our medical records – well, why can’t it be used give access to our other personal information such as taxes, pensions and welfare benefits?

And what’s more, NHS Login can also already be used to access a variety of private sector services, such as online pharmacies or health and wellbeing apps, and to share your medical records with other healthcare providers. There isn’t another government login service that offers this private sector compatibility.

There are some obvious answers to many of these questions, and they are embodied in Whitehall politics (and egos) more than in any technical limitations.

The government digital community should be celebrating the success of NHS Login – and looking at how its rapid adoption could be used more widely across the public sector.

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