NHS contracts: would you trust this company with your personal data?

The government recently announced it would invest £3.4bn in a technological development programme to be spent on transformation in the NHS over three years from 2025-2028. The plan is for a nationwide data system using software that will allow individual health service trusts and the 42 integrated care systems to connect digitally and share data, improve care and cut waiting times, for instance by having real-time data on hospital bed number, waiting list sizes, staff rotas etc. Whilst in principle such a programme would be fine if it were in public hands, it has been passed to US company Palantir through a £330m five-year contract to set up and operate a Federated Data Platform. Palantir will have access to and security control of sensitive private medical records.

Originally a spy-tech company, Palantir’s initial customers were the National Security Agency (NSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the CIA and the US marines, which used its technology in Afghanistan. Palantir has worked with the Ministry of Defence in Britain and its founder Peter Thiel backed Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential election. Palantir helped US immigration enforcement agency (ICE) with Trump’s 2017 deportation policy by enabling the identification, tracking and information exchange about migrants and asylum seekers, allowing raids that led to parents being arrested, separated from their children, and deported. Thiel, now a billionaire, made his political views evident when he said in an Oxford University Union debate in 2023 that the NHS makes people sick and should be privatised.

Palantir describes its military technologies as offering customer ‘mission-tested capabilities, forged in the field’ to deliver ‘a tactical edge – by land, air, sea and space.’ In a social media post 12 October 2023 Palantir said ‘Certain kinds of evil can only be fought with force. Palantir stand with Israel.’ As the slaughter in Gaza continued, in a letter to shareholders on 2 November 2023, Palantir said, ‘We are one of the few companies in the world to stand up and announce our support for Israel, which remains steadfast.’ Israel is targeting healthcare systems in Gaza, assassinating doctors, nurses, paramedics and patients, using Palantir technology.

Palantir in the NHS has come under criticism from technolgical, medical and civil liberties groups, all appalled at its control of sensitive personal data. The Good Law Project is looking into how Palantir commissioned a covert smear campaign against a prominent critic within weeks of the contract being awarded.

Technology gets millions, children get marginalised

When people try and remember one success of the last Labour government, they say Sure Start – 3,600 centres at the peak in 2010 with a budget of £1.8bn. The Institute of Fiscal Studies found Sure Start centres delivered major health benefits in deprived areas and millions of pounds of savings through reduced hospitalisation. Since 2010 there has been a 62% cut in council early-years-service spending and already by 2019 20% fewer children accessing Sure Start services.

Babies and infants under one year old now have the highest rate of A&E attendance; the rate of 0-4 year olds attending A&E has increased by 42% in the last ten years. In 2015, the public health grant fell by £69m and the responsibility for health visitors (HV) was taken over by local authorities. Since then, almost 40% of the HV workforce has been lost. There are now over 2,000 fewer HV than in pre-Covid times. Over the same period, 10% of school nurse posts have disappeared.

The base requirement of health visitors is to meet new babies when they are around 10-14 days of age, then see them again at six to eight weeks, review their development at one year and finally between two and three. The current data suggests that more than 84,000 babies in England missed health checks in the weeks after birth, that only about half had HV contact at six to eight weeks, and only 4% received three to four month check-ups from a qualified health visitor. The Institute of Health Visiting survey in 2023 found that 91% of HVs reported an increase in poverty affecting families and use of food banks, 83% reported an increase in perinatal mental illness and 75% an increase in domestic abuse.

Hannah Caller