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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Denis Campbell Health policy editor

NHS England gives key role in handling patient data to US spy tech firm Palantir

A doctor on a ward checks a patient’s records on a tablet
Palantir’s five-year contract is to operate the NHS’s new ‘federated data platform’. Photograph: Mark Thomas/Alamy

The NHS is to hand a key role in handling patient data and share of a £480m contract to the US spy technology firm Palantir this week, the Guardian can reveal.

NHS England is set to confirm that Palantir’s joint bid with professional services company Accenture to operate the NHS’s new “federated data platform” (FDP) has been successful.

It is preparing to make an announcement on Tuesday that is likely to spark fierce debate about the safety of patient data, public trust in the NHS and Palantir’s suitability to be involved in the FDP. The construction of the platform is the biggest IT contract the NHS has ever awarded.

The contract will be for five years but could be extended to seven.

The platform is designed to help individual hospital trusts and NHS integrated care systems – regional groupings of trusts – share information and “talk” to each other more easily.

NHS bosses and Prof Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, insist that the FDP will improve patient care and stop patients having to explain to multiple different staff what is wrong with them.

Palantir is best known for its work with intelligence and military agencies in the US, UK and elsewhere, such as the CIA. The firm gained a foothold in the NHS in March 2020 when, at the government’s invitation, it began analysing huge amounts of health service data to help with the official response to the unfolding Covid pandemic.

Peter Thiel, the billionaire chair and founder of Palantir, was criticised in January after he told an Oxford Union debate that British people’s deep affection for the NHS amounted to “Stockholm syndrome”.

At the debate Thiel, who backed Donald Trump’s successful bid for the White House in 2016 and became part of his post-election transition team, also said of the NHS that “in theory, you just rip the whole thing from the ground and start over”. He also claimed the NHS “makes people sick”.

NHS England also received bids for the FDP from Quantexa, a British company, in tandem with IBM, and from Oracle Cerner. Palantir already helps the NHS process data and works for the UK Ministry of Defence.

The British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, recently wrote to the then health secretary, Steve Barclay, detailing a number of serious concerns involving privacy and ethics, about both the FDP and Palantir in particular.

In a Commons debate this month David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said Palantir’s close relationship with the CIA meant that “it is the wrong company to put in charge of our precious data resource. Even if it behaved perfectly, nobody would trust it,” he told MPs.

In a recent blogpost, Prof Sir Stephen Powis, the medical director for NHS England, and other senior staff explained that the FDP “will enable NHS organisations to bring together operational data, currently stored in separate systems, to support staff to access the information they need in one safe and secure environment”.

They added: “This could be the number of beds in a hospital, the size of waiting lists [for] elective care services or the availability of medical supplies.”

Palantir undertook a sustained lobbying campaign to win the contract. It hired the consultancy firm Global Counsel and benefited from the help of several well-connected key players there, including ex-Tory health minister Nicola Blackwood and Matthew Swindells, a former deputy chief executive of NHS England, the New York Times reported in September.

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