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The 2019-20 financial year will be etched in our memories as the year that coronavirus (COVID-19) arrived in England. For the last two months of the business year, February and March 2020, the emergency response to the pandemic consumed NHS Digital. In the circumstances, the commitment and dedication of our staff has been completely extraordinary. So many of them have worked so many hours to deliver so many services. Saying thank you seems completely inadequate, but I cannot introduce this overview of the year without starting by paying tribute to them.

Image of Sarah Wilkinson, Chief Executive

This crisis affects us and all those we serve on a very personal level as well as through the demands it places on us as an organisation. Sadly, a number of our colleagues and partners have suffered the searing pain of losing loved ones to the virus and many have been separated from loved ones for extended periods of time. Many have been managing complex domestic situations, juggling caring for vulnerable friends and family, educating children at home and living in the confinement imposed by lockdown.

The extent to which we have been called on in recent months is testament to the critical role that NHS Digital plays in the health and care system. One of the most heartening experiences of the last few months has been seeing the new services we have delivered in recent years, as part of the NHS Digital Transformation Programme, being put to such effective use. Our NHS 111 systems, the NHS App, NHS login, our referral and prescribing platforms, our Data Services Platform, our more rigorous framework for primary care IT services, the National Event Management Service and National Record Locator service, NHSmail, our core infrastructure capabilities, our cyber security operations capability, and so many of our other products and services, have proved to be critical and powerful enablers.

Delivery of these robust national products and services has been underpinned by significant strengthening of the core technical capabilities within our organisation, through an extensive transformation programme which has focused on skills development and assessment. We have welcomed strong new talent and we continue to extend our training offering for staff at all levels in the organisation. As the digitisation agenda for the health and care system accelerates over the coming months and years, turbocharged by the experiences during the coronavirus outbreak, we will need to continue to transform and adapt.

In addition to more advanced digital products and platforms, much more sophisticated use of data and analytics are critical to the future of the system. In response to the pandemic, the Department of Health and Social Care gave additional powers to NHS Digital and other organisations, allowing us to access and disseminate data with much greater ease across the system. We leveraged our GP Connect platform to enable 111 providers to insert COVID-19 alerts into GP records and book patients into GP practices and other local COVID-19 care centres. We were able to include ‘additional information’, including COVID-19 flags, into Summary Care Records so that secondary care providers had immediate access to much greater information about each patient. Perhaps most powerfully, we agreed with the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association that we would collect full details of primary care records for the first time and, with their support, use and disseminate those as needed for direct care, planning and research.

This more open sharing of patients’ records within the tight security of the health and care system is something we have aspired to for many years and is already having a huge impact on the quality of patient care. The new powers provided are for coronavirus purposes only, but careful and effective operation of these new modalities during this period will doubtless inform the approach the system takes when we emerge from the crisis.

It is critical that we operate with extraordinary care with respect to privacy, confidentiality and the ethical handling of patient data at all times, but never more so than under these new arrangements. The historical reticence to share data, which has materially constrained care provision and in many cases had a devastating effect on individual patients, is a legacy of decades of failed technology initiatives, misjudgements in the handling of data and resultant mistrust. This must be the turning point on this journey, for the sake of all patients in England.

Our role as the national data guardian for the system is more critical than ever, as is our ability to make independent judgements about legal and ethical use of NHS data, and our provision of independent statistics for the health and care system.

Our focus, as we look toward a year of ongoing intensity in response to coronavirus, is on serving patients and clinicians across the health and care system through the delivery of world-class digital and data services. Our hope is that we can effectively play our role in fighting this pandemic and, in doing so, can show how these services can dramatically change lives for the better.

Sarah Wilkinson

Chief Executive

NHS Digital

Last edited: 15 July 2020 3:38 pm