'Vast majority of people' are onside with a data grab they know next to nothing about, reckons UK health secretary

A day before THAT delay, Matt Hancock told MPs that 'citizens' own the data he'd instructed the health department to take by default


Comment Against a strong field, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has come out as a winner in the prize for stomach-churning political double-speak while addressing NHS Digital's shameless grab for patient data held by GP surgeries in England.

As we reported yesterday, that grab has since been delayed by two months, supposedly to 1 September, though the date of the final day for opt-outs has not been given.

Yet it seems a day earlier on Monday, Hancock was unaware of the pending change in the GP data haul start date. While speaking in Parliament about the vital role evidence from patient data can play in medical research — a point few contend — Hancock made the bold claim that "the vast majority of people are strongly onside" with the General Practice Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR), taking the time to cite no evidence whatsoever.

The plan to scoop up around 55 million people's medical records in England and share it with academia and private-sector companies with scant regard for data protection law is, apparently, a hit with the public, Hancock told MPs.

The claim was in response to a question from Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. He said information patients may have shared — while in a vulnerable state — with GPs years ago, about the termination of pregnancy, domestic or sexual abuse, substance misuse or alcohol abuse, are set to be shared with NHS Digital and "potentially used by commercial interests, and yet hardly anyone knows about it."

Ashworth asked why the project could not be "paused" until a "transparent consultation" could be launched with "patients and clinicians about how best confidential data can be shared for research purposes."

But Hancock was unmoved.

He said research based on data within the NHS is life-saving, and had been used "incredibly powerfully" during the pandemic.

"The UK is the place where we discovered some of the life-saving treatments for COVID, like dexamethasone, because of the powerful use of data. In fact, just that discovery of dexamethasone using NHS data has saved over a million lives around the world," the Health Secretary said.

Hancock went on to say that data "doesn't belong to any GP, it belongs rightly to the citizen, it belongs to the patient, that's the approach that we should take."

How this statement translates into an approach whereby NHS Digital — a non-departmental body commissioned by NHS England, another non-departmental body of the Department of Health and Social Care i.e. the government — should take the data by default as instructed by Hancock himself is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to see how this cherished sense of data belonging to the patient is supported by the fact that patients were given only six weeks to opt out, with only a few posts on NHS Digital's website and associated tweets by way of notification.

Nonetheless, Hancock assured MPs patient data accrued in the data grab would "improve lives and save lives."

He told MPs: "That's the approach that we're going to take in building a modern data platform for the NHS, so that we can use this modern asset to improve individuals' care and to improve research and therefore all of our care, whilst of course preserving the highest standards of safety and privacy."

Asked again if he would delay the rollout to allow for better, more inclusive communication by Munira Wilson, Lib Dem spokesperson for Health, Wellbeing and Social Care, Hancock claimed "the large majority of the NHS are now actively enthusiastic about using data better" without offering any evidence and again refusing to budge.

The Health Secretary's defence of the GPDPR plan amounts to saying if you're against it, you're against using health data for medical research, which no one has said. On the question of why now, and why in this way, he remains silent. ®

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