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How technology helped shape the pandemic response

A photo of Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I want to say thank you for the work you did to protect the NHS, and let you know about our approach to technology in the future. If the coronavirus pandemic had happened even five years ago the NHS would have been much less able to cope. We simply would not have had in place the technology that has allowed us to move so many vital services online. 

This didn’t happen by accident but because the whole NHS family has pursued a strategy of rapid, clinically-led digital transformation. 

Remote consultations, for instance, have supported thousands of patients to stay safely at home and get the healthcare they need. 99% of practices can now offer video consultations, up from 3% at the start of the year, and the feedback from both patients and clinicians is overwhelmingly positive. 111 online has also been amazing and will get stronger and stronger.

Much of NHS Test and Trace is already online. You can book a test and get advice online, while of course, the telephone service is available for all those who need it.   

And throughout the lockdown we’ve supported care homes to introduce modern digital tools; whether online check-ins with local GPs, getting care homes onto NHSmail or the over 2000 tablets we’ve given to care settings to allow residents to stay in close touch with loved ones, something that’s so important for people’s wellbeing. 

There is no going back on these improvements, and it’s not just the front-end patient-facing services that have been transformed, it’s the digital back-end too. Getting our data infrastructure into shape has been a vital part of the NHS response to the pandemic.

Secure reliable data from the NHS COVID-19 data store has ensured that those leading the response to the virus in both the NHS and government have the data we need to manage the response in real-time. 

We also issued simple guidance endorsed by the ICO and the National Data Guardian to ensure data can be shared and can get to where it’s needed, and that, crucially, data-sharing rules do not get in the way of looking after patients. The easy-to-use guidance we’ve published means that staff on the frontline can feel confident that they’re doing the right thing when they’re using patient information. We will not be going backward on this approach either, but will continue to make it easy to use data properly to deliver care and save lives.

None of this would have been possible without the remarkable, can-do attitude to tech that has characterised the NHS’s response to the pandemic, across the frontline. People simply refused to accept that something was too difficult to do, or that it would take years rather than weeks.

All of this is a huge tribute to the work of so many, right across our health and care system: the CIOs, CCIOs and CNIOs who’ve driven these innovations; the frontline staff who’ve thrown themselves in to new ways of working; and the patients themselves who’ve been amazingly willing to embrace new ways of accessing the NHS. This has been a truly national effort.

The old argument about whether it’s right to prioritise modern technology in the NHS and our care sector is over. The pandemic has proven beyond doubt that better tech is vital for the future success of our health and care service.  

Old rules about what platform you can use are never coming back. Skype, Whatsapp, Zoom, Teams: we all have our preferences. You can use whichever works for you, so long as it is locally agreed. 

Use email. Don’t fax. Use smartphones. Not pagers. You don’t need bespoke kit: use what works for you. If a rule or piece of local bureaucracy gets in the way of this, let NHSX know and we will fix it. 

Now we need to focus on how we can ‘bottle’ the progress we’ve made in the last few months. 

More consultations at home; clear, simple rules that enable safe data-sharing; closer working between the NHS and social care supported by technology: far from a temporary response to a national crisis, these improvements can and must become part of the standard way the NHS operates.  

The goal is clear: better care for citizens; staff freed up to do more of the work that they love. Let’s make it happen.

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