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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Matt Hancock signals Big Tech’s role in the NHS will outlive the coronavirus pandemic

The health secretary Matt Hancock has indicated that partnerships between the NHS and tech companies are likely to outlive the pandemic.

Speaking at the CogX technology conference this morning (10 June), Hancock couldn’t sing the praises of tech companies highly enough. “The honest truth is there is no way we would have been able to cope with this pandemic and deal with it in the way that we have been able to without the support of tech companies,” he said, describing them as “absolutely brilliant at putting together the platforms that we need” and “building the test and TRACE program”.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the NHS has made deals with the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Palantir and the Vote Leave-linked company Faculty, which has ties to Dominic Cummings. It also contracted Pivotal, a subsidiary of VMware, and Zühlke Engineering to work on the contact tracing app.

He characterised the NHS response to the crisis as a true “public-private effort”. Hancock signalled his intention to continue outsourcing NHS functions to private companies. “I think this whole debate in the past, that the NHS has to be only public sector and you can’t have private companies helping […] it’s completely out of date,” he said.

He firmly signalled his intention to continue with the same approach adopted during the pandemic, saying “what we need is teamwork and partnership, and that’s what we delivered during the crisis, and that is the way that we’ll go forward because that is the best way to deliver healthcare free at the point of delivery.”

For those worried that the pandemic was being exploited as a cover to privatise swathes of the NHS, they would appear to have their answer.

Hancock deflected on the question of when the app would launch, saying “there’s not many countries that have got an app running up and running across the board.” He said the trial on the Isle of Wight had been “very successful”, but that the number one thing his team learned from the trial was that “technology is a facilitator for people to be able to do things better”, and this was why they’d prioritised launching the wider contact tracing system first, because “getting people naturally used to the idea that if you’re contacted by the contact tracer” you should self-isolate is “better done with human contact”.

He reiterated the head of the Test and Trace programme Dido Harding’s description of the app being the cherry on top of the cake and described the Test and Trace system “up and running and working well”, the truth of which has been firmly disputed. Hancock said the app would launch “when the time is right”, but didn’t put a date on when that time might be.

Embarrassingly, Hancock wasn’t aware of the Babylon Health data breach widely reported this morning. Even more embarrassingly, he continued to speak into his mic following the talk in the belief that it was off, reportedly saying that he should’ve known, “especially since they’re my GP. Honestly, they know more about my bunion than anybody.”