New NHS trust should oversee, sell patient data, says report

Ex-Conservative leader William Hague (L) and former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair (R)
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Wikimedia

Two former political rivals in the UK have joined forces to write a strategy to keep the country at the forefront of the biotech and artificial intelligence sectors – and making the most of NHS data is a key part of their plan.

Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and William Hague, previously leader of the Conservative party, have made dozens of recommendations on ways the UK government and regulatory authorities can support the sectors in their just-published report.

Called A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain, the wide-ranging, 72-page document sets out a plan to reimagine state and public services, make better use of data, and improve the access of tech companies to skills and financing.

They write that biotech is an “absolutely critical part” of the global technological and scientific revolution and one “which Britain must lead”, or face “being left behind by surging global competition”.

Among the recommendations is the issue of access to NHS patient data, which has been a source of considerable controversy and debate in recent years that has come to a head with the award of a £330 million ($420 million) contract to US IT group Palantir to create a new federated data platform (FDP) for the health service.

Blair and Hague’s report calls for the creation of an NHS Data Trust (NHSDT), with a controlling stake owned by the NHS and additional investments from trusted companies, which would allow data to be deployed to fuel “research, public health and patient treatment”, whilst also “strictly preserving privacy and preventing misuse”.

Palantir’s FDP contract seems to stop short of providing access to patient-level data for now, but there are concerns that it is the first stage of a process that will end up with access to medical records, placing a major resource into the hands of an overseas private company.

Blair and Hague are clear that their model envisages that anonymised NHS data would be treated as a competitive asset, provided to researchers, including biopharma companies in return for financial profit that would be invested in the NHS.

“A transparent governance model would ensure that our data remain safe and that NHSDT’s operations align with public-health objectives, not private capital’s,” they claim.

The report also calls for a new national Laboratory of Biodesign to take the lead on biotech discoveries that are too early-stage to attract commercial investment, the integration of AI into the NHS to support healthcare professionals, and a series of measures to improve the financing environment including an expansion of the British Business Bank.

The two former politicians argue that nothing will be more important to British jobs, living standards and security in the coming years than becoming a world leader in these areas.

“We both believe that whether Britain can establish a leading position in science and innovation will be the single most important determinant of our future prosperity, and therefore of the jobs, living standards and security of British people,” they write in the document, which is the third in a series laying out a vision for reimagining Britain and building prosperity.

“There is not a moment to lose in making the most of it.”