Sarah Wilkinson, most influential person in UK tech 2021 – winner’s speech

In this video from Computer Weekly’s annual UKtech50 event, in partnership with Spinks, Sarah Wilkinson, CEO of NHS Digital, gives her acceptance speech as the 2021 most influential person in UK tech.

The last year has been a challenge for everyone, but probably the most challenging for the NHS, which has had to deal with its normal demand on top of tackling the coronavirus outbreak.

In her acceptance speech, Wilkinson admited it has been a hard time for the NHS, claiming winning the award is "going to mean a lot to everyone in our organisation,".

Over the last year, NHS Digital has developed many projects, including but not limited to: scaling up its NHS 111 non-emergency helpline and online service, a new risk stratification system to identify people who need to be on the shielded patient list, a clinical algorithm to identify those patients who were classed as high risk, vaccine infrastructure, and infrastructure for Covid-19 testing.

Wilkinson said: “NHS Digital has had an extraordinary year, it’s been pretty intense. We’ve delivered a vast number of services in a very short time.”

This pattern has been seen across many organisations during the pandemic, where over the last year it was not always appropriate to take too much time over decisions, and Wilkinson claimed she has had to focus more on making fast and clear decisions to ensure things more forward more quickly.

During her winner’s interview, Wilkinson admitted the pandemic and the extra work that many have had to put on has taken a toll on people, and going forward there is a need to be mindful about giving people time to recover from the stress of working through a pandemic.

She claimed in her speech: “I do lead an extraordinary group of people," and while talking to Computer Weekly about the year NHS Digital has had, she said: 

“We’ve got so many staff who’ve worked so intensely hard, and in such challenging circumstances, and again and again we’ve taken on major programmes of work, often with timeframes for delivery that just seem pretty unmanageable, and in every case, we’ve come good,

“We have brilliant staff. And actually, I believe all organisations have lots of brilliant staff within them, it’s just that sometimes the leadership don’t know who they are. In a hugely pressured situation like this, one of the deep joys is that you find your superstars much more easily than you would in normal times.

Whilst shining a light on NHS “peer organisations”, Wilkinson pointed out what a “complex” organisation the NHS is – a “challenging environment” with high demand.

She said: “It’s only possible to make progress when all the necessary parts of that structure find a way to jostle along together.”

Ultimately, “knowing what we do matters” is what helps Wilkinson and her team get out of bed in the morning.

Sharing her respect for NHS front line workers, as well as any of the tech teams across the NHS, Wilkinson said: “Any one of those teams would be worthy of this award.”

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