Four initial sites will be awarded a slice of £100 million funding by NHS England to develop regional secure data environments (SDEs) starting this year.

While an official announcement has yet to be made, Digital Health News can reveal the four Wave One sites are London, Northwest, Thames Valley and Surrey and West Midlands.

Each will receive funding of around £10m over three years to begin the development of a sub-national Secure Data Environment for Research & Development (SDE for R&D). These are intended to enable NHS data to be safely and securely accessed by researchers.

The award of the funding for SDEs follows the June 2022 publication of the Department of Health and Social Care’s data strategy, ‘Data saves lives: reshaping health and social care with data’, and forms the centrepiece of NHS England’s Data for R&D programme.

A total of £200m has been earmarked for the Data for R&D programme, with £100m expected to go to Health Data Research funded projects and hubs and a similar sum to the new SDEs for R&D.

The agency has advised NHS organisations it expects to invest in a total of 11 SDEs for R&D. The four Wave One sites will begin this financial year; and up to a further seven in Wave Two will be invited to further develop their plans this financial year.

The final number may drop as prospective SDEs in the same region are being strongly encouraged to develop collaborative plans.

If 11 SDEs for R&D are funded it would be significantly more than the handful of larger Trusted Research Environments (TREs) called for in the independent Goldacre Review, ‘Better, broader, safer: using health data for research and analysis’, published in April 2022 and led by Professor Ben Goldacre, who has been announced as a keynote at Digital Health Rewired 2023.

The review into how the efficient and safe use of health data for research and analysis can benefit patients and the healthcare sector, suggested that creating more than a handful of TREs would risk fragmenting knowledge, skills and data and not create data assets at the optimal scale for R&D.

NHS England is also pursuing a high-profile £360m national procurement for a national data platform to provide operational and planning data on vaccines, plus population health tools.

The programme has proved controversial due to similarities to the failed initiative and potential contract award to Palantir.

It is not yet known how the new SDEs will connect to existing NHS Digital maintained data assets and platforms or the planned new national data platform.