Palantir's deals with NHS England top £60M – without competition

Latest £24.9M 'transition' contract an attempt to bridge gap to contract is due to award in September

The NHS has awarded US spy-tech firm Palantir a £24.9 million ($31.7 million) deal to cover the one-year transition, from June 12, 2023, to a new £480 million ($611 million) data platform.

The controversial competition to provide that half-billion-pound platform is set to conclude in September.

NHS England, the health department quango, first started working with the US data analytics company during the height of the pandemic, when a £1 award [PDF] led to a £1 million ($1.7 million) deal, and then a £23 million ($29.2 million) contract signed in December 2020 without competition for a COVID-linked data store and related analytics.

That deal was subject to the threat of judicial review from campaigners, who argued the contract represented such a change in data usage it warranted public consultation under British data protection law. NHS England later agreed not to extend Palantir's contract beyond the pandemic without consulting the public.

In January, NHS England extended that deal by six months for a value of £11.5 million ($14.64 million), the maximum 50 percent value extension allowed without competition under UK public procurement law. At the time, tech law campaign group Foxglove said it had not seen any of the consultation they promised during the last legal round over the COVID data store. That deal came to an end on June 11.

Palantir earned an early reputation creating bespoke solutions such as digital profiling tools for the CIA and ICE, the US immigration enforcement agency. The company was founded by prominent Trump financier and PayPal investor Peter Thiel.

Bridge until FDP... the 'must-win' platform

NHS England has now awarded another deal to Palantir as a "transition contract" while it finalizes the procurement of a Federated Data Platform, a £480 million project to capture use cases supported by the current data store and more. Palantir considers the FDP competition a "must-win," according to reports.

An NHS spokesperson said: "The new interim contract will ensure there is no gap in service provision and support the smooth transition from one platform to another.

"The Federated Data Platform procurement process is separate to this and is taking place in accordance with strict procurement rules. The successful supplier of the FDP will be required to go through due diligence before the contract is awarded, and through various stages throughout its lifetime."

Over £60 million has now been handed to Peter Thiel's spy-tech firm with zero competitive tender, zero consultation, and next to no public engagement.

The "transition and exit" deal has been awarded under the Crown Commercial Services Big Data & Analytics framework.

NHS England denied it had created a new deal to avoid difficulties with procurement law in extending the original contract, The Register understands.

Foxglove director Cori Crider said: "With every fat check handed to Palantir it looks more and more like the £480 million FDP contract isn't a competition – it's a stitch-up. Over £60 million has now been handed to Peter Thiel's spy-tech firm with zero competitive tender, zero consultation, and next to no public engagement. This is poor practice for the spending of public money. It's also a huge risk to patient trust."

Recent research from YouGov found almost half of adults in England who have not yet opted out, 48 percent, are likely to do so should the FDP be introduced and run by a private company. Thirty per cent were very likely to.

A recent report [PDF] from the Doctors' Association and Foxglove argued that the FDP would be over centralized and lead to a lock-in to the successful bidder.

The report called on UK Parliament to investigate the FDP procurement to look at its value for money and its risks to patient trust, and pause the process until crucial questions can be answered.

The Register understands that the purpose of the transition deal is to "package up" applications using the data store and ensure that the "code is liftable," which is not the case at the moment.

As well as replicating aspects of the COVID-19 data store platform services, the FDP would support five "initial" use cases including elective recovery, which is reducing the backlog of vital, but not urgent, operations currently at record highs. They also include plans to support "organizational interfaces" supporting patient discharge.

Palantir also currently supports the Faster Data Flow program, which sees the government extract patient data from hospitals. It will also become part of the FDP program.

Given that Palantir currently supports several data projects expected to become part of the FDP program, critics have argued it is at an unfair advantage in the £480 million ($611 million) competition. NHS England argues it is a fair and open competition.

Sam Smith, coordinator at health privacy campaign group MedConfidential, said: "This is their interoperability – moving data in secret from one Palantir to another. If senior staff believed in the 'competitive dialogue' they're running or believed in interoperability at all, they would have said that every process in the current Palantir side of the data store will be published for reuse.

"It's not that the process is necessarily corrupt; but small decisions keep getting made that favour the incumbent, because those doing the work think that's what [NHS England director of transformation] Tim Ferris and leadership want them to do." ®

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