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2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic has been a huge challenge for the healthcare sector, but it has also been a significant driver in technological advances, as well as high-profile projects such as test and trace and the Covid-19 app.
When the first wave of the pandemic hit at the beginning of the year, NHS organisations across the country were faced by unprecedented pressure, while government scrambled to put plans in place to tackle the virus outbreak.
The pandemic led to the much-debated test and trace programme, the Covid-19 app, and numerous other technology deployments, but 2020 was a year where local NHS trusts needed to get to grips with their own technology.
Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 NHS stories of 2020:
Before the country went into lockdown, the NHS’s digital unit, NHSX, published a Tech Plan, aiming to ensure personalised, joined-up and proactive delivery of health and care, with all the building blocks in place.
The strategy is based on observations done by the digital unit, finding shortcomings in the system, particularly in the staggering differences between NHS organisations’ digitisation progress.
As the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold, the NHS realised it would need the help of the technology sector to care for people during the crisis.
As the country was asked to “stay home and stay safe”, NHSX and govtech startup accelerator Public launched a technology challenge to encourage developers to build software to find ways to deliver mental health and social care support digitally.
By April 2020, the government’s efforts to build a Covid-19 contact-tracing app able to track coronavirus cases across the UK was well underway.
The app aimed to automate the “laborious” process of contact tracing to help reduce transmission of the coronavirus by alerting people who may have been exposed, so they can take action to protect themselves. At the time, the app was on track for a May launch, but the app had only just passed its alpha testing and there were serious privacy concerns. Spoiler: the app would not launch in May.
In the midst of the pandemic, Computer Weekly spoke to NHS Digital CEO Sarah Wilkinson about how the organisation was tackling the crisis.
The pandemic led to a huge increase in work for the organisation as it dealt with huge demand for its technology products, and needed to rapidly scale up and ensure vital data sharing and infrastructure was done safely and efficiently. However, the increased workload also had a positive impact, and Wilkinson predicted that once we come out on the other side, it will be a different NHS, where things may get done a little quicker than previously.
In the midst of the pandemic and the government’s work to build a proper NHS data analysis programme, there was controversy. In March 2020, NHSX and NHS England engaged Palantir, alongside Microsoft, Google and AI firm Faculty, to build a data platform to battle coronavirus. Engaging Palantir was a decision not loved by all, and one privacy campaigners were not happy with.
Privacy campaign groups wanted to know how Palantir were planning to retain and use the data analysis it gained from the NHS, and whether it planned to use it to “strengthen its own proprietary systems”.
Due to the pressure from privacy groups, the NHS published its contracts with the suppliers ahead of court proceedings initiated by civil liberties organisation OpenDemocracy.
While the pandemic led to the NHS making huge strides in adopting technology, the NHS is still having issues with technology.
In May 2020, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report highlighting that the NHS digital transformation programme has struggled with changing strategies, lack of funding and confusion.
The government has had many attempts to digitise the NHS, including the latest global digital exemplar programme. However, the NAO is uncertain it will deliver its intended benefits.
It was not May, but the end of September, by the time the UK’s contact-tracing app was launched.
It took extensive trials, mishaps and technical issues, but on 24 September, the app went live with huge success. On the first day, it was downloaded six million times, and in four days, it reached 10 million downloads.
The app that was launched was a technological progression of the first version, envisaged in April 2020. Instead of using a centralised data base structure, the app ended up being based on a decentralised data collection model.
In August 2020, health secretary Matt Hancock announced big changes to Public Health England (PHE). Instead of PHE, which would be scrapped, the government decided to create a new organisation: the National Institute of Health Protection, an organisation which would merge Public Health England with the Join Biosecurity Centre and the NHS Test and Trace Programme.
The new organisation is chaired by none other than NHS Test and Trace executive chair Dido Harding. Announcing the new institute, Hancock called it out “best chance of beating this virus”, and in the future its aim is to spot and tackle other health threats.
While the government itself ramped up work to deal with the pandemic, so did local NHS organisations across the country.
In November 2020, Computer Weekly spoke to several organisations which have signed up to and deployed a range of technologies to help them tackle the pandemic.
Whether it was technology allowing them to manage staff rotas, deploying a new electronic patient record system or getting an overview of Covid-positive patients in the hospital, technology proved to be hugely beneficial.
In November 2020, the Public Accounts Committee raised concerns that the Department for Health and Social Care and the NHS have still not learned lessons from previous IT programmes, and are at risk of repeating old mistakes.
It also criticised NHSX for still not having an implementation plan in place, and there is a lot of confusion around the roles of NHSX and NHS Digital, which often overlap.
NHSX originally planned to produce a digital strategy during the first half of the year, but this was delayed due to the pandemic.