NHS breaks up £400mn data contract in response to privacy concerns

The UK NHS has split a £400m masterpiece data contract into several parts, but US data analytics giant Palantir remains the highest bidder for the health service’s operating system.

The company is best known for its ties to the security, defense and intelligence sectors and its push to process millions of patient data has alarmed some privacy activists and National Health Service staff.

palantir is still set to bid for the contract to operate the NHS’s main data platform, the most lucrative element of the deal worth £360m.

But now that the NHS has broken the blanket contract, Palantir would not be able to bid on partner but smaller projects for privacy tech or an app store-style marketplace. It is not clear if it could still compete for a fourth contract covering training, implementation and deployment.

Ming Tang, NHS England’s director of data and analytics, told the Financial Times the organization had split the £400m federated data platform program acquisition into four contracts to “safeguard” the service.

“Whoever processes the platform cannot own the privacy-enhancing technology, so the key transfer [of data] It’s safe,” he said.

Tang added that the long-delayed project, which will enable data sharing across England’s NHS, is awaiting Treasury approval.

The vendors learned they would be banned from bidding on all parts of the project in August, according to a document seen by the FT. A tender is expected in the coming weeks.

A senior health official said at least one British company was likely to have a realistic chance of winning part of the contract, which would help allay concerns about a US company processing UK health data.

Palantir took on the role of the NHS’s main data analytics provider during the pandemic, helping to manage the use of ventilators and protective equipment and organizing vaccinations.

The group landed more £23.5 million contract to face the waiting lists in December 2020.

The federated data platform is a much bigger prize. Palantir, whose founders include entrepreneur Peter Thiel and chief executive Alex Karp, has argued that the group’s technology can deliver all aspects of the program.

Tang tried to dismiss suggestions that splitting the contract was intended to limit Palantir’s role. “The split is just how to safeguard the NHS,” he said this week. “There is quite a bit of an obsession with Palantir. If we can find an alternative, better [than Palantir]that’s what we’ll end up with.”

Another person familiar with the discussions told the FT the move was likely the result of advice from procurement and data security experts, while also reflecting concerns about one company running the entire programme.

But Phil Booth of MedConfidential, a privacy campaign group, said the program division did not provide transparency about how patient data would be used.

Palantir, who hired two senior NHS officials over the summer, including Tang’s former NHS deputy in England Harjeet Dhaliwal, said he was “calm” with the decision to terminate the contract. He added that the decision was “very wise for the NHS, and the NHS alone.”

It will compete for the main platform contract against other groups, including Britain’s Quantexa, a provider of data infrastructure for banks such as Standard Chartered and HSBC. Quantexa chief executive Vishal Marria said he plans to bid as part of a consortium with a large consulting firm.

Groups vying for the smaller £35m privacy-enhancing technology contract include Privitar, a British data privacy software company that has existing contracts with NHS Digital.

In a sign of concern within the NHS about Palantir’s role, Tang faced several questions about the US company from delegates at a digital health conference this week.

GP and privacy advocate Dr Marcus Baw was applauded by some delegates when he said he would not award the contract to Palantir if he were in their position.

“We are going through a fucking acquisition and we will buy the best there is,” Tang replied.

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