NHS data platform procurement delayed for a second time

Questions remain over Palantir's influence after consultancy role for former NHS England director revealed

Competition for a "Federated Data Platform" (FDP) for the NHS in England has been delayed for a second time as details emerge of how Palantir – the US spy-tech biz hotly tipped to win the £360 million ($421 million) contract – has influenced the controversial procurement.

Early supplier engagement over the FDP – which will follow on from the NHS's COVID data platforms run by Palantir – began in April, with the price pegged at a maximum of £240 million ($278 million). The tender notice estimated the formal competition for the contract would begin in June.

That deadline came and went, and in August officials said the contract notice was scheduled to be published September 6. However, it was seemingly missed again as the UK appointed a new prime minister. The Register understands that it is awaiting sign-off by the new health minister Thérèse Coffey.

NHS England has insisted competition for the contract would be fair and open. However Palantir is in a strong position as one of the suppliers originally contracted to build an NHS data store in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft were also among a group of tech businesses involved in related NHS contracts – which were only published after legal warnings.

At the time, officials promised the NHS would close the data store after the pandemic eased.

In fact, the role of the data store and Palantir has since increased. In December 2020, the US data analytics firm founded by Trump backer Peter Thiel was awarded a £23 million ($27 million) project to continue its work without outside competition. Months later in March 2021, the government caved at the threat of a judicial review appearing to set limits on its use of the data store.

The data platform procurement – now priced at £360 million ($421 million), according to documents – is said to be a "must win" deal for Palantir, which has seen its technology used by the CIA and US immigration agency ICE.

Hiring

Palantir has already recruited Indra Joshi and Harjeet Dhaliwal, key figures in NHS England's data science and AI teams.

The Register can now reveal Palantir also hired another influential NHS figure by proxy, seemingly in an attempt to promote its use in the NHS.

Matthew Swindells was national director for operations and information at NHS England and Improvement (NHSE&I), a non-departmental public body under the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), until the end of July 2019.

From September 2019, he began working for consultancy Global Counsel, which has Palantir as a client. The association with Palantir was such that Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, the flagship Palantir user where Swindells is a chairman, said he would be excluded from "any decision making in relation to Palantir [PDF]."

Civil service rules determine there should be a six-month gap between civil servants leaving public service and beginning lobbying. The Register understands from the NHS that those rules would have applied to Swindells.

NHSE&I did not begin work with Palantir until March 2020, during the early months of the pandemic. But questions about whether Swindells met with NHS or DHCS officials in his new consultancy role between September 2019 and the end of February 2020 are awaiting an official response.

Nonetheless, influence among wider NHS leadership is perhaps the aim. In December 2021, Global Counsel and Palantir jointly hosted a webinar to consider the "next steps the UK should take in realising UK's life sciences vision."

A Palantir white paper published in late 2021 also includes some similarities to the NHS data strategy, which emerged in June 2022. The Global Counsel webinar marked the formal release of Palantir's white paper, titled A National Technical Framework to Underpin the UK Life Sciences Vision .

Swindells chaired the webinar meeting. Also speaking were professor Martin Severs, former medical director at NHS Digital, and Dr Claire Bloomfield, then deputy director for value of data, Centre for Improving Data Collaboration, NHSX, the disbanded digital strategy unit under the DHSC. Bloomfield is now at NHS Transformation Directorate as senior responsible owner for data research and development.

The Register understands from the NHS that officials take part in supplier events to ensure the health service is "part of the conversation" in the health tech industry.

Published in December 2021, Palantir's white paper [PDF] contains some striking similarities to the later NHS data strategy published six months later. It advocates for "a logically federated, locally controlled cloud-based data infrastructure," which would "enable local data owners (care providers) to maintain control over their data, maximise the potential for research across the UK."

Meanwhile, the NHS data strategy (June 2022 – which you can read here) says: "We are looking to develop a federated data platform which will be a system of connected platforms, placed in, and ultimately determined by, individual NHS organizations."

FDP procurement documents shared with suppliers and seen by The Register said: "Local trusts and [integrated commissioning systems] will therefore have the autonomy to use the [federated] platform to address their own key challenges and priorities."

NHSI&E officials maintain it engaged with and was informed by a range of stakeholders including the wider health and care system, industry and academics. The federated approach was recommended by NHSE&I, they said.

The Register has asked NHSE&I for official comment. ®

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