A lack of data integration across the health and social care sectors “throttled” the timely sharing of vital information to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, a new report has found.
Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee labelled the speed at which public health data was first made available “unacceptable” and called on the Department of Health and Social Care to address poor integration of data across national and local systems.
Its report into the government’s use of scientific advice in response to Covid-19, which draws on evidence from chief medical officers, scientific advisors and SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), found a “fully effective” response to the pandemic was “hampered by a lack of data”.
“Given the UK’s strengths in statistical analysis and data science, it is regrettable that poor data flows, delays in data-sharing agreements and a general lack of structuring and data integration across both the health and social care sectors have throttled timely data sharing and analysis,” the report found.
“It is unacceptable that detailed public health data was only made available to modellers from March. The potential consequences of this will undoubtedly include slower and less effective decision making.”
The committee called on the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to set out an action plan to address poor data access, including agreements and incentives to share data.
It should also address integration of data flows across the health and social care sectors, including at national and local level, the report said.
A DHSC spokesperson told Digital Health News a data strategy to improve patient outcomes and build on “to effective data sharing across the system seen during the Covid-19 response” would be launched in the coming months.
The data strategy is being developed in partnership with NHSX.
“This is an unprecedented global pandemic and the best available scientific evidence and data has informed our response throughout,” the DHSC spokesperson said.
“New data is constantly emerging on the disease and modelling has been, and continues to be updated based on the latest evidence.”
The Covid-19 Data Store
In response to the pandemic the government set up a number of systems to centralise data flows and provide a better picture of how the virus was spreading, including the NHS Covid-19 Data Store.
The aim of the Data Store was to connect the government and other national organisations responsible for coordinating the UK’s response to the virus, bringing together data such as 111 online and call centre data from NHS Digital, as well as Covid-19 test result data from Public Health England.
But the government has faced criticism over the lack of transparency in awarding contracts to big tech firms to work on the Data Store, most notably Palantir.
Palantir was among a suite of private tech firms hired in March to help deliver the NHS Covid-19 Data Store and other Covid-19 responses. Google, Amazon, Microsoft and AI firm Faculty also hold contracts to work on the platform.
The contract with the US firm was originally for a nominal fee of £1 but a new contract worth £23million until December 2022 was awarded to the tech giant in December.
The contract was awarded under the Crown Commercial Services G-Cloud 11 Framework, which does not require a tender to be published.
Tech justice firm Foxglove Legal has campaigned for greater transparency in the awarding of contracts with big tech companies after the government failed to publish the original contracts relating to the Covid-19 Data Store, including Palantir’s, and only did so in June just hours before proceedings brought by openDemocracy and Foxglove were due to start.
A privacy notice relating to the NHS Covid-19 Data Store states Palantir, and other tech companies involved, only have access to pseudonymised and anonymous data, but concerns have been raised about how private tech firms could be using NHS data.
The government’s new contract with Palantir was published after it was signed in December but parts have been redacted, including sections titled “limit of parties’ liability” and “data integration and analytics capability for self-service” which specifically covers how many “authorised users” are allowed to create and modify tools designed using the data.