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February 10, 2023updated 27 Jun 2023 9:59am

NHS brings in additional scrutiny for Federated Data Platform amid Palantir worries

A "critical friend" has been appointed to oversee development of the platform, which could be run by a controversial US big data company.

By Sophia Waterfield

NHS England has hired a “critical friend” to oversee the implementation of its Federated Data Platform (FDP), which is currently out to tender for £480m. Consultants are scrutinising development of the platform as more pressure mounts on health service bosses to not hand the contract for the FDP to controversial big data company Palantir, which has apparently set its sights on running the platform.

Palantir under a magnifying glass
Palantir might be under scrutiny with a new consulting firm bring brought in to watch over NHS FDP. Photo by Shutterstock.

Qi Consulting, based in Crawley, is providing “constructive feedback and challenge” programme plans and products developed for the tender. The “Critical Friend” contract is worth £35,640 and has been up and running since November, according to a contract notice published this week. It will end on March 31, and comes at a time when NHS England technology budget is set to fall below £1bn, much less than then £2.1bn set aside in the 2021 spending review, according to a report in the Health Service Journal.

FDP will be ‘owned and controlled by NHS’

The FDP is being set up with a remit of “unlocking the power of NHS data” to understand patterns, solve problems, plan services for local regions and “ultimately transform the health and care of the people they serve.” The five-year contract is valued at up to £360m, with an additional option for a 24 month extension taking the total value up to £480m.

Speaking on the FDP project in November, Dr Nicola Byrne, the National Data Guardian, said that the country’s store of confidential data, which she coined a national treasure, must never “be compromised or treated carelessly.” 

“The value of our data will only be realised if it can be organised in such a way that the NHS is able to use it well to improve treatments, services and ultimately our health and care,” she said. “However, making the data available in ways that damage patients’ trust would be counterproductive. If people lose their trust in how the health and care system handles their confidential data things will fall apart, and plans for data use will not hold.”

The role of a critical friend is to provide scrutiny and advice on a project or programme and can be seen in business or in academia. While the contents of the services in the contract have been redacted, it is clear that Qi Consulting will scrutinise anything relating to the development of FDP. 

Palantir’s role in the FDP

Development of the FDP has attracted criticism over the role of Palantir, the US company that has close ties to the CIA and other US security agencies and which, since the Covid-19 pandemic, has become an increasingly important supplier to the NHS. It has been providing support for procurement of the FDP and in January had its contract for its work extended until June without competition. The company is keen to secure the full contract, and has reportedly hired several former NHS executives to aid its chances.

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Indeed, since the COVID-19 pandemic, Palantir has won three no-bid contracts to manage what is the “largest pool of patient data in NHS history,” the most valuable being worth £23m. The latest extension cost NHS England £11.5m, which NHS England stating in a procurement notice that putting the extension out to tender “would cause significant inconvenience and have substantial duplication of cost implications.”

It has reportedly set , many are unhappy about Palantir taking on the work or running the platform. A website called NoPalantir.org, run by campaign group Foxglove and backed by a host of civil rights groups, is calling for the contract not to be awarded to the US firm. “How can you ask people to freely share health information into a system run by a firm that works mainly with police and spies?,” it asks, referring to the company’s work with the US government.

Joanna Peller, who co-leads Palantir’s NHS work, said: “We’re proud to have supported the NHS during Covid-19, when our software was used for the vaccine rollout and to distribute PPE and ventilators. And we’re equally proud we are currently helping to reduce the care backlog, cut the amount of time nurses and doctors need to spend on administrative tasks, and speed up cancer diagnosis – all while rigorously protecting data privacy.

“Most importantly, we are seeing promising results – for instance at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust, which has seen a 28% waiting list reduction and suspected cancer patients being seen two days faster.”

Read more: So what are Labour’s tech policies, exactly?

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