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Matt Hancock encourages private sector involvement in post-pandemic NHS technology

Health secretary Matt Hancock has outlined how the NHS will continue to leverage digital technologies with the help of the private sector after the Covid-19 pandemic ends

Closer collaboration with the private sector, data-led decision-making and telemedicine will be “mission critical” to the NHS going forward, according to secretary of state for health and social care, Matt Hancock.

Speaking on The Future of NHS Tech – Covid-19 and Beyond webinar, organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Hancock told more than 200 virtual attendees how there has been positive change in all three areas since the start of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve seen the uptake of the use of technology like never before… I’d say the three big areas where there’s been an improvement is telemedicine, data in decision-making, and the teamwork between different institutions,” he said. “We need to entrench these improvements.”

This sentiment was echoed by Tara Donnelly, chief digital officer at healthcare innovation unit NHSX, who said: “The tech response [to the pandemic] has been nothing short of extraordinary. We’ve seen a mind-shift change, in the public and NHS alike, with digital solutions being embraced like never before in health care.”

Both Hancock and Donnelly specifically praised the private sector’s close collaboration with the NHS during the pandemic, with the former noting: “The old row about what’s delivered through the public sector and what’s delivered through the private sector has abated enormously.

“What really matters when there’s a proper crisis is how can you deliver the mission on which you are engaged, whether that’s treating Covid or stopping the spread of the epidemic – it matters far less the badge of the person who’s doing the job,” he said.

“It’s been a very big moment for team working between people of all sorts of different institutions and organisations, because that’s what the crisis has demanded, and ultimately that’s what technology demands, because technology doesn’t recognise silos.

“Entrenching this better culture, both among patients and clinicians in the system, is mission critical, as well as entrenching data in decision-making, and entrenching the open enthusiasm for using the private sector to solve problems,” he added.

Entrenching the change through procurement and data-sharing practices

During the webinar, Alexander de Carvalho, co-founder and chief investment officer of government technology (govtech) startup accelerator Public, claimed there has been “incredible improvements in procurement processes” during the Covid-19 response, which has “allowed both buyers and suppliers to interact in a far more ambitious way”.

“Government is obviously seen suddenly as a very safe revenue source by a lot of investors, not just the VC community, but large institutional funds, pension funds, and so on. There have been a lot of businesses that have turned into zero-revenue businesses in the past three to four months, and what was seen as a stable sleepy area has suddenly become quite interesting,” he said.  

“The world of govtech has never been more exciting – whether you’re in health, education, justice or policing, et cetera – government will, can and is going to invest in uplifting, upskilling and supporting an economic return.”

De Carvalho claimed the increasing involvement of startups and other early-stage companies in healthcare technology will have “a dual benefit of boosting the economy and securing government response” for future health crises.

“On top of that there’s been a loosening, or an improvement, of data sharing agreements [as part] of a more aggressive push for a truly interoperable state of play, which is very important. Again, a lot of it has been in the context of the Covid-19 response, but as much as we can keep some of this positive momentum in place post this response, the better,” he said.

To ensure the changes remain, Hancock signalled the government’s intention to alter pre-Covid procurement arrangements and make them simpler.

“We’re leaving the European transition period at the end of this year, that means we'll be writing our own procurement rules… to make sure that every part of the public sector can buy in a modern, effective way – of course getting value for money, but with far less of the bureaucracy,” he said.

Hancock has already moved to ease the flow of data, signing a notice on 20 March that provided legal backing for the NHS to set aside its duty of confidentiality in data-sharing arrangements.

Dubbed the Covid-19 Purpose, the new data-sharing agreement means NHS organisations and GPs can share any and all patient data with any organisation they like until 30th September 2020, so long as it’s for the purpose of fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Shoshana Zuboff, author of The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, said that while the pandemic is “a crisis for all of us, it is something like business as usual for surveillance capitalists, in the sense that it is an opportunity to, possibly, significantly enhance their behavioural data supply chains”.

She added: “We’re at an impasse now – we’re meeting this crisis at a time when we don’t have all the pieces in place that would allow us to trust such technology applications and their complete dedication to public health objectives, because they remain in the unregulated, lawless space of private surveillance capital.”

Read more about NHS technology

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  • The government has published the contracts with Palantir, Faculty, Microsoft and Google for the controversial NHS datastore ahead of court proceedings initiated by civil liberties organisation OpenDemocracy.
  • Health secretary gave GCHQ emergency powers to obtain information relating to the security of its networks and IT systems at the beginning of April, it has emerged.
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