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The pandemic has made UK government rethink its relationship with data

Data has been essential to fighting the coronavirus outbreak, and the forthcoming National Data Strategy promises to place data at the heart of the UK's economic recovery

It’s taken a global crisis for us to rethink our relationship with data. Over the past few months, our ability to share vital information quickly, efficiently - and most importantly, ethically - has been one of our most versatile weapons in the battle against coronavirus. As you read this, data is literally saving lives. And it will play a huge part in our recovery.

Throughout this pandemic, the NHS has used tech dashboards to pinpoint where ventilators, beds and medics are most needed. Its Blood and Transplant Service has scanned health data to find donors urgently, while scientists at the University of Oxford have deployed NHS Digital records to compare treatments, minimise the burden on our frontline staff and help us find a cure for Covid-19.

Following the spike of coronavirus cases in Leicestershire, government has been working closely with local partners, and all councils in England now have the ability to access testing data so they can take swift action to deal with any new local spikes in infections.

Data’s impact has been felt far beyond the intensive care unit, though. Open banking models have allowed those in financial need to share their income to HM Revenue & Customs - fast-tracking their applications for new welfare entitlements. Data helped the government prioritise the vulnerable for grocery deliveries, which was only possible because the NHS, government and supermarkets shared it. And data enabled our army of NHS volunteers to support those in need.

A vital crutch

As we now take tentative steps towards normality, data will be a vital crutch for us to lean upon.

Over the coming weeks and months, many of us will start returning to our workplaces, revisiting our high streets and doing many of the things we used to take for granted, like shopping and traveling on public transport. Data will enable us to do that safely.

Public health officials will track real-time data to monitor regional flare-ups of the disease. Google Maps will be able to tell us when the shops, buses and trains are at their busiest so that we can go when it’s quiet. Wearable tech on our wrists will beep when someone is within six feet, keeping us safe in the workplace.

Independent regulators continue to ensure our data is used appropriately and responsibly. But those concerns have been balanced with the compelling public interest to share vital information quickly during one of the worst public health emergencies in our history.

If coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that tech companies, charities and the public sector can work together to innovate and respond with agility, while at the same time upholding our rights. Too often, the debate about data has been reduced to a false dichotomy between ethics and innovation. This crisis has shown you can have both.

I don’t intend to let that lesson go to waste. As we move towards recovery, I want to free up organisations and businesses to keep using data not only to deliver essential services, but to innovate and experiment, and fuel a new era of growth in the country. I want to see data first and foremost as an opportunity to be embraced, not a threat to be guarded against.

National Data Strategy

Our forthcoming National Data Strategy will be central to that effort. It will build on the foundations that proved so effective throughout the Covid-19 pandemic - ones that allowed the use of better-quality and faster-flowing data to solve urgent economic and societal problems.

It will recognise that data has always been a key driver of economic growth, and ensure people from across the entire UK play a part in the recovery by giving them access to crucial digital skills and capabilities.

As we work to secure data adequacy with the EU, we hope it will mirror the successful approach of the Information Commissioner’s Office during this pandemic and maintain our high standards, so we can create the best data regime possible.

In short, our strategy will ensure the UK remains at the heart of the data revolution.

We’re currently in the middle of the first ever global pandemic of the digital age. When it comes to data as a force for good, it’s shown us the art of the possible.

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