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England's Data Guardian warns of plans to grant police access to patient data

Proposed law could 'erode trust and confidence' in healthcare

England's National Data Guardian has warned that government plans to allow data sharing between NHS bodies and the police could "erode trust and confidence" in doctors and other healthcare providers.

Speaking to the Independent newspaper, Dr Nicola Byrne said she had raised concerns with the government over clauses in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The bill, set to go through the House of Lords this month, could force NHS bodies such as commissioning groups to share data with police and other specified authorities to prevent and reduce serious violence in their local areas.

Dr Byrne said the proposed law could "erode trust and confidence, and deter people from sharing information, and even from presenting for clinical care."

Meanwhile, the bill [PDF] did not detail what information it would cover, she said. "The case isn't made as to why that is necessary. These things need to be debated openly and in public."

In a blog published last week, Dr Byrne said the bill imposes a duty on clinical groups in the NHS to disclose information to police without breaching any obligation of patient confidentiality.

"Whilst tackling serious violence is important, it is essential that the risks and harms that this new duty pose to patient confidentiality, and thereby public trust, are engaged with and addressed," she said.

"People need to trust that they can share information in confidence with those responsible for their care without worrying how it will be used, by the police or others. And health professionals need to trust that that confidential information they routinely collect as part of care will not be used in ways that could negatively impact care, or which may be at odds with their professional and ethical duties and obligations to their patients.

"If people feel that their information may be used in unexpected ways, for purposes they may not support, this greatly undermines the fundamental relationship of trust. The effect may be to deter patients from seeking treatment, or, when seeking treatment, to only disclose partial or false details, thereby denying clinicians the information they need to deliver safe and effective care."

The bill is at the committee stage in the House of Lords, and is set to have its first sitting on 20 October 2021.

In her newspaper interview, Dr Byrne also warned that emergency powers the government introduced to allow patient data sharing at the beginning of the pandemic could not run on indefinitely after they were extended to March 2022.

In August, Dr Byrne declined to endorse NHS England's effort to be "transparent" with its recently published detail on data flows from a patient medical information project that put US spy-tech firm Palantir at the heart of the government's response to the pandemic.

The COVID-19 data store was launched in March 2020, and would pull together medical and operational data about the spread of the virus. NHS England and NHS Improvement published a "data dissemination register" on 12 August 2021. But Dr Byrne later said she would "continue our ongoing dialogue with NHS England and NHS Improvement about their work." ®

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