NHS England (NHSE) has awarded a new 12-month contract worth £25 million to US data analytics giant Palantir to “transition” its current projects with the health service to the new Federated Data Platform (FDP) supplier, for which a £480 million contract is expected to be awarded in the coming months.
The new Palantir Foundry Transition & Exit contract, which was announced on a government contracts site at noon on Tuesday, had a start date of June 12.
It is designed to “provide the smooth transition and exit service of critical products that were developed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic (for Covid-19 and elective recovery purposes), to alternative provisions including the transition of products to the new FDP-AS supplier following completion of the procurement process and award to the FDP-AS supplier,” according to the description on the contracts site.
The award of the contract is likely to renew concerns about the transparency of the tender process for the FDP. Palantir has been widely viewed as having a clear advantage in bidding for the operating contract due to its existing work during the pandemic helping the government manage Covid data at no cost.
NHSE commented on Wednesday: “The new interim contract will ensure there is no gap in service provision and support the smooth transition from one platform to another.
“The federated data platform procurement process is separate to this and is taking place in accordance with strict procurement rules. The successful supplier of the federated data platform will be required to go through due diligence before the contract is awarded, and through various stages throughout its lifetime.”
The British Medical Association said it was concerned about the implications of Palantir having a further advantage in the tender for the FDP on the willingness of patients to trust the NHS’s use of their data.
In a statement, Dr David Wrigley, digital lead of BMA’s GP committee, said: “GPs have long raised concerns about the appropriate use of patient data, and today’s decision by the Government to give £25m to a huge US-based multinational company, to do further work on a large NHS patient data project, only exacerbates these concerns.
“The crux of the doctor-patient relationship is trust. While GPs are supportive of safe and consensual uses of patient data – such as for direct care and legitimate research purposes – we want to see it done in a way that won’t damage the confidence that patients have in the profession, and the care they receive.”
The BMA called on the NHSE and the department of health and social care to “urgently discuss with us how they plan to use confidential patient data within this data platform and what role Palantir will play.”
Campaigners for equitable access to technology, including non-profit legal advocacy group Foxglove, have argued that NHSE has insufficiently thought out its proposed FDP and risks endangering the safety and confidentiality of the personal data of millions of patients if it awards the full tender for the project to Palantir.
They also argued Palantir’s work with intelligence and security services in the U.S. made it a questionable choice for managing NHS England’s trove of personal health data and suggested that Palantir’s public comments on the process suggested it was largely interested in monetising the data at a later point.
Critics say contract undermines competitive tender
Cori Crider, a director at Foxglove, was critical of the contract award. She said: “With every fat check this government hands to Palantir, it looks more and more like the £480m ‘Federated Data Platform’ contract isn’t a competition – it’s a stitch-up.
“Over £60m have now been handed to Peter Thiel’s spy-tech firm with zero competitive tender, zero consultation, and next to no public engagement. This is poor practice for the spending of public money. It’s also a serious risk to patient trust.”
Crider said new polling from YouGov has found that, should the FDP be brought in and be run by a private company, like Palantir, 48% of adults in England, or about 20m+, are likely to opt out of sharing health data with the NHS.
She added: “Anything like that 20m+ figure opting out would be catastrophic for the future quality of NHS data – one of the most precious health resources we have as a country.
“It’s not too late to change course. Parliament should urgently investigate the FDP procurement, its value for money and its risks to patient trust, and pause the FDP tender until crucial questions can be answered.”