Much like its predecessor, 2021 was certainly a one-of-a-kind year. With 2022 just around the corner, let’s take a look back at Digital Health’s most popular stories from the past year.

While Covid-19 still dominates the majority of our top 10 – interest appears to have moved towards the buzz-term of 2021 ‘Covid passports’. Join us now as we look at the 10 most-read stories by you, our readers.

10. Dr Timothy Ferris appointed NHS director of transformation

The last year has seen some pretty big news stories that have been completely un-related to Covid and this is a prime example. Back in March, it was revealed Dr Timothy Ferris had been selected to lead NHS England and Improvement’s Transformation Directorate. 

Dr Ferris’ previous experience included serving as a non-executive director of NHS Improvement for almost three years and a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He joined the NHS from the not-for-profit Massachusetts General Physicians Organisation, where he was chief executive. He also founded the Centre for Population Health, which champions the use of prevention and data to improve health, reduce inequalities, and save lives.

The Transformation Directorate was established in order to bring together the NHS England and Improvement operational improvement teams with NHSX and has the aim of maintaining the pace of innovation seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

9. NHS Covid-19 app updated to reduce number of ‘pings’

Back in August and in the midst of the so-called ‘pingdemic’, Digital Health News reported on how the NHS Covid-19 app was updated in order to reduce the number of ‘pings’ that people were getting.

The rules surrounding the sensitivity of the app were tweaked – so isolation notices were sent to close contacts two days before the positive test instead of five.

It means those getting pinged by the app will only have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive within the last two days.

8. NHS Digital announces new primary care data collection service

Another big non-Covid story of 2021 has been the proposed changes to the way primary care data is collected by GPs. NHS Digital announced in May that it was setting up a new primary care data collection service with the aim of giving planners and researchers faster access to pseudonymised patient information – known as the General Practice Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR) service.

However, the service was not given a positive reception and the original roll out date was eventually scrapped after concerns were raised about the timeframe to implement the programme and whether patients had been given sufficient information about how their data would be used.

Privacy campaigners and GPs warned it could destroy patient trust and called for more transparency on how the programme would be delivered.

7. NHS Covid travel pass to now include proof of booster jabs

A late entry to the top 10 – and the first mention of Covid passes – was the news that booster Covid jabs were added to the NHS Covid travel pass in November.

The passes are available via the NHS App and from November 19 in England and from 29 November in Wales, evidence of a third Covid vaccination will automatically appear.

6. NHS Digital and NHSX to merge with NHS England

2021 was the year of a major change to the way NHS IT organisations are set up as it was confirmed that NHS Digital and NHSX are to merge with NHS England and Improvement.

The announcement was made off the back of recommendations made in the Wade-Gery review which looked into the digital responsibilities of different NHS agencies.

The news came in a letter to staff from NHS England and Improvement’s chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, which stated that as part of NHS England and Improvement, “NHS Digital will become the CIO directorate and NHSX will evolve into the strategy function in the Transformation directorate”.

5. NHS Covid Pass accepted as EU Digital Covid Certificate equivalent

The next mention of Covid passes is dedicated to the news that the pass would be accepted as an equivalent to the European Union Digital Covid Certificate in a bid to make international travel easier for UK citizens.

An agreement between the EU and the UK meant travellers can now have their vaccination status digitally verified with each other’s Covid vaccination certificate schemes.

Although most EU countries accept the NHS Covid Pass, only a few were actually able to scan their barcodes. The new agreement, made on October 29, meant UK citizens could confirm their Covid vaccine status using the EU Digital Covid Certificate (EU DCC) gateway.

4. Covid-19 passports to go live in Northern Ireland ‘from next week’

Our number four spot is reserved for our story about the rumoured launch date of Covid-19 vaccination passports in Northern Ireland. In June, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health announced the passes could be live by July 5 – ahead of the previously expected July 19 date.

Vaccine passports in Northern Ireland were originally launched in hard copy with a digital alternative later released.

3. More than one million people download NHS App for Covid-19 passport

As we break into the top three, you guessed it, Covid passes are still dominating, as it was revealed in May that more than one million people had downloaded the NHS App since Covid-19 passports were launched on the service.

The addition of Covid passes has made the NHS App one of the most downloaded apps of 2021. Aside from proving Covid passes, the app also allows users to access a range of NHS services on their smartphone or tablet. It was launched in 2018 and offers services including symptom checking and triage; appointment booking; repeat prescription ordering; access to patient records; national data opt-out; and organ donation preference.

2. Online Covid-19 passports go live in Wales from today

Just missing out on the top spot was a story from back in June when Digital Health reported that online Covid-19 passports had gone live in Wales.

The Welsh government recommended digital Covid passports over a paper version and they can be shown on smartphones, tablets or laptops. However those who do not have online access can request a paper version of their passport be sent to them. This can be done five days after receiving the second jab.

1. NHS App to be used as Covid-19 passport from May 17

And finally, the moment you have been waiting for. Our top story of 2021 (and no real surprises here) was the confirmation that the NHS App would be the place for people to download their Covid-19 passports.

In a coronavirus briefing in May, the then-travel secretary, Grant Shapps, confirmed people would be able to access their vaccination status through the app.