CogX 2020: Matt Hancock on tech during Covid-19

Health secretary Matt Hancock says technology companies have been vital in dealing with the pandemic, and praises UK for testing more people “than almost anywhere in the world.”

Secretary of state for health and social care Matt Hancock has said “there is no way we would have been able to cope with this pandemic” without the support of technology companies, describing their involvement as a “true public-private effort”.

Speaking on the third and final day of CogX on 10 June, an annual global leadership summit focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies, Hancock said the idea that the NHS should be a solely public sector body is “completely out-of-date.”

“I think this whole debate in the past that the NHS has to be only public sector and you can’t have private companies helping, I just think it’s for the birds,” he said. “What we need is teamwork and partnership, and that’s what delivered during the crisis, and that is the way that we'll go forward because that is the best way to deliver healthcare.”

Hancock said technology companies were vital in building the “tech backbone” of the UK’s “200,000-a-day” testing regime “from scratch”, claiming “we now have the biggest Covid diagnostics capability in Europe, and we test more people than almost anywhere in the world”.

However, it is important to note that government aides have confirmed the 200,000 tests a day target refers to operational capacity rather than actual tests performed.

According to the government’s own data, for example, 102,930 tests were carried out on 8 June, despite the testing capacity being 227,455. Since the start of the pandemic, the government claims it has conducted 5,870,506 tests.

“I have no doubt that we’ll learn a huge amount for future pandemic planning, and we’ll have that diagnostics industry in place that we didn’t – we’re never going back on that,” said Hancock.

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On the contact tracing app itself, which has dogged by numerous controversies, Hancock said trials held in the Isle of Wight had “been very successful” and that some big lessons had been learnt by government, including the importance of isolation after contact and the fact people are more receptive to isolating after being contacted by human tracers.

“What really matters is the people. The technology is a facilitator for people to be able to do things better,” he said. He added the app was just “the cherry on the cake that allows you to find other contacts that you wouldn’t be able to disclose… because you just don’t know who they are”.

However, when pressed on a timeline for the app, Hancock said “we’ll launch it when the time is right” and “I’m not going to put a date on it”.

The government has previously indicated that it expected the app to be ready for a national roll-out in late May. When specifically asked about the NHS working with controversial technology firms Babylon Health and Palantir, and whether he understood people’s reservations, Hancock responded: “What I care about is getting results.”

When asked to comment on news from 9 June (the day before) that Babylon’s GP video appointment app suffered a data breach which allowed users to watch recordings of other people’s consultations with their doctors, Hancock said that while he was not familiar with the breach, there is a need for “high quality privacy provisions”.

“A good data architecture leads to better security and better data capabilities, and so improving that data architecture is incredibly important for both, and we need to do that in the public services that are delivered in the same way that any private company needs to do it,” he said.

After the session ended, Hancock, unaware the mic was still on, reiterated he had no idea about the breach, but said he should have known, “especially since they’re my GP”. 

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