NHS data platform costing £480m to supersede Covid-19 data store underway

NHS England has published an opportunity to tender for a data platform for use in the health service. The anticipated value of the five-year contract will be up to £360m, but with an option to extend by 12 months, bringing the estimated value up to £480m.

The goal is to replace the data platform that was put together during the height of the Covid-19 public health crisis in 2020. It will be a cloud-delivered service and a big aim of it will be to share data in a secure manner, according to the tender statement.

The programme to create a “federated data platform for the NHS” is one in which national data guardian Nicola Byrne insisted must be clear and open with the public from the start to avoid making the same mistakes as the failed Care.data platform. That was launched a decade ago, and subsequently scrapped under pressure from privacy campaigners. Its goal had been to extract data from GPs to be stored in a central database held by the then Health and Social Care Information Centre.

In November 2022, Byrne said: “The Care.data programme failed when it could not provide satisfactory answers to a series of questions and tests set by Dame Fiona [former national data guardian Fiona Caldicott], including key ones around transparency and the clarity of policy and communications.

“I hope the NHS will keep this lesson in mind and engage with these critical themes from the outset, so that the federated data platform programme succeeds in inspiring confidence and support, where Care.data did not.”

NHS England has said it will not mandate use of the proposed new platform, but will instead invite NHS Trusts and integrated care systems [ICSs] to use it to support their own use cases. It statde: “De-identified data will only flow to central platforms for specific, necessary and pre-agreed planning purposes (such as national reporting on vaccine uptake, to increase supply chain efficiency or to create benchmarks of good practice that can inform national policy) and in compliance with information governance principles and data protection law.”

The original Covid-19 data store involved a range of IT suppliers, including Microsoft, Google and AWS. But one in particular attracted and continues to attract the ire of civil liberties campaigners – Palantir, with its Foundry data integration platform core to the data store.

The involvement of Palantir in NHS data projects always attracts controversy from UK civil liberties organisations, such as Privacy International, OpenDemocracy, and the law firm Foxglove. This is largely because its founder and chairman is Peter Thiel, reputed to be a right-wing libertarian and a Donald Trump supporter. OpenDemocracy has, in the past, cited Palantir’s “support for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s brutal regime of deportations” as a reason why it should be excluded from NHS contracts.

Nevertheless, the data analytics provider’s CEO, Alex Karp, describes himself as a socialist and a progressive, and has a PhD in social theory from Goethe University Frankfurt – well known as the home of the Institute for Social Research, the so-called “Frankfurt School” of Marxism. Karp trained in that tradition, and described himself as “an academic by proclivity” in an interview with CNBC at Davos in 2019.

In the same interview, he summed up what he described as Palantir’s pro-US principles: “We believe states are sovereign, we believe they need security and we believe in the West.” Of Donald Trump, Karp has said: “I respect nothing about the dude.”

But, any involvement of Palantir in NHS contracts will continue to attract controversy from data privacy campaigners.

Suppliers have until 9 February 2023 to get their tenders or requests to participate in the data platform project into NHS England.

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