The NHS has begun feeding health workers’ use of personal protective equipment (PPE) into a “data store”.
The system is designed to identify which hospitals and GP surgeries are most at risk of running out of kit and address the problem before it occurs.
By Leo Kelion BBC Technology desk editor 30 April 2020
High-level decision-makers should be able to start seeing the information via a computer dashboard within a fortnight.
NHS staff say their lives have been put at risk because of PPE shortages.
The government has said it is working “around the clock” to address the issue.
NHS Providers – which represents hospitals and other NHS trusts in England – told the BBC that supplies of gowns and visors remained an unresolved problem.
Health chiefs already use the dashboard system to help make decisions on how to redistribute ventilators, intensive care unit (ICU) beds and other critical equipment.
However, privacy campaigners have raised concerns about one of the tech firms involved in the project.
The BBC first revealed in March that NHSX – the health service’s digital innovation unit – had hired several tech firms to help it make sense of the data it was collecting related to the pandemic.
This involved mixing together information from 111 and 999 calls, diagnostic test results, and use of resources across the NHS, social care and partner organisations – a full list has been posted online.
PPE was not originally included in the initiative. There are hundreds of different products involved – including a variety of aprons, gloves, surgical masks and eye protectors – and they are typically sourced directly by local procurement staff.
But after the British Medical Association warned earlier this month that supplies of some equipment were at “dangerously low levels” in London and Yorkshire, and hundreds of care home providers also sounded the alarm, efforts are being made to help track relevant data centrally.
The effort coincides with other changes to the wider scheme.
Until now, its focus has been to deliver “situational awareness” – showing the spread of Covid-19 and its impact on the NHS in “real-time”.
The next phase involves providing forecasts as to what happens next. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and other expert groups already do this on a national basis.
But the tech companies involved are working with Oxford University’s Big Data Institute (BDI) to provide forecasts at the level of hospital trusts, community hospitals and GP surgeries.
Although the BDI is also involved with NHSX’s coronavirus contact-tracing app, the two efforts are otherwise independent of each other, and there are no plans to mix information gathered via the app with that of the data store.
There is also an ambition to make the dashboards available to regional managers in the future.
Amazon, Microsoft and Google are all involved in the data store project.
But two smaller companies are at its core.
Faculty – a London-based machine learning specialist – has developed the dashboards, models and simulations.
And Palantir – a California-based company that helps clients integrate and “clean” various sources of data, so that new connections and other insights can be discovered – is providing its Foundry software and staff to help NHSX pull all the information together. It is not charging for the work.
The involvement of the latter has proved to be a concern to privacy campaigners.
Palantir has been used by US immigration officials to track down undocumented workers, causing controversy among civil liberties organisations. It also has a reputation for secrecy.
On Wednesday, Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, Foxglove, MedConfidential and the Open Rights Group sent a joint letter to the company asking it to disclose more details about its involvement with the coronavirus data store.
NHSX has said that all the data involved remains under its control – and that Palantir cannot independently store, access or pass on any of the records. But the privacy groups say they still want to know if the company will retain any “insights gleaned”.
“It would be misleading and cynical for Palantir to offer services to the NHS without being fully transparent about how the company may benefit,” said Privacy International.
It is Palantir’s standard contractual policy that all insights and analysis undertaken with its software belong to its clients.