National Health Service (NHS) England introduced a new telephone and online service – NHS 111, some years back allowing individuals to seek medical advice and/or treatment for urgent but non-life-threatening symptoms. The 24/7 hotline and web-based assessments aim to ease the burden shoulder by emergency call 999 as well as attending to the needs of the public outside local General Practitioners’ (GPs) working hours.

The data meant for decision making processes

Although NHS 111 faces some criticism over the years, it has become a lifeline for many in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Since mid-March, it had handled over 1.7 million inquiries via the internet or from callers who are either experiencing symptoms or have concerns and questions related to coronavirus.

Recently, it has been reported that data collected through NHS 111 and other NHS service platforms will be used to build new virtual tools, including dashboards that assist in directing resources, equipment and supplies to emerging infection hotspots or hospitals with greatest needs; channelling patients based on their needs to facilities with higher staffing capacity, and understanding how the virus is spreading at community level to highlight risks to particularly vulnerable populations.

It’s expected data in the areas of where and what kinds of ventilators are being employed; the capacity of Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments; length of hospitalizations for Covid-19 patients; number of NHS staff getting sick, and the number of beds required at general ward, specialist clinics and critical care, will be involved in building these new tools.

Concerns on privacy and data robustness

Besides, Amazon, Microsoft, and Palantir – will be providing cloud computing service; data store, and software which gathers data respectively to the NHS for the effort. This has nonetheless sparked concerns on privacy especially Palantir’s previous involvement with Cambridge Analytica. With that, the NHS reassures all data used will be anonymized and no one will be individually identified through personal details. Most importantly, all records will be destroyed when the pandemic is over.

In spite so, NHS’ Director of Primary Care Dr. Nikita Kanani pointed out in a letter to all GPs that the NHS data may not be “sophisticated enough” to flag “all categories of patients who should be included I the vulnerable groups list” (i.e., those with underlying health conditions and elderly). As such, Dr. Kanani urged all primary care doctors, specialists and secondary care providers in the identification of such patients, with the help of a “at high risk” indicator code. At the moment, it’s unsure whether the NHS data will render UK a pandemic solution that it badly needed.

At the bare minimal, the country believes that an answer can be found within technology itself as the three US tech companies mentioned earlier had already met with the Prime Minister’s advisor, Dominic Cumming on 11 March at 10 Downing Street. We can only hope that this is not some kind of desperate measures or the beginning of yet another adverse challenge and something concrete can be generated at the end of the day.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.