NHS uses tech giants to plan crisis response

Data collected via the NHS's 111 telephone service is to be mixed with other sources to help predict where ventilators, hospital beds, and medical staff will be most in need.

The goal is to help health chiefs model the consequences of moving resources to best tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Three US tech firms are aiding the effort - Amazon, Microsoft and Palantir - as well as London-based Faculty AI.

The plan is expected to be signed off by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

"Every hospital is going to be thinking: Have we got enough ventilators? Well we need to keep ours because who knows what's going to happen - and that might not be the optimal allocation of ventilators," explained a source in one of the tech companies involved.

"Without a holistic understanding of how many we've got, where they are, who can use them, who is trained, where do we actually have patients who need them most urgently, we risk not making the optimal decisions."

The project is likely to give rise to privacy concerns.

However, the NHS intends to make sure that all the data involved has been anonymised so that personal details cannot be tied back to any individual.

And once the crisis is over, it is committed to destroying all the records.

Visual dashboards

The goal is to provide the NHS with interactive dashboards that pull together the disparate data it and its partners already hold.

This will involve using data about:

  • what ventilators are being used where
  • levels of staff sickness
  • patient occupancy levels of hospitals broken down by general beds, specialist beds and critical beds
  • capacity of A&E departments
  • length of stays of patients with Covid-19

This in turn will allow decision-makers to:

  • understand how the virus is spreading at a local level in order to identify risk to particularly vulnerable populations
  • proactively increase resources in emerging hotspots
  • ensure critical equipment is supplied to the facilities with the greatest need
  • divert patients to the facilities that are best able to care for them based on demand, resources and staffing capacity

In time, managers also hope to provide versions of the dashboards for public view.

Amazon's AWS division is helping to provide the cloud computing resources required, while Palantir is providing its Foundry software to help draw all of the data sources together. The program was previously used by the US to help co-ordinate response efforts to Haiti's cholera outbreak after an earthquake in 2010.

Microsoft's cloud division Azure has built what has been termed a "gigantic" data store to aid the project.

Faculty AI was previously known as ASI Data Science, and has previously worked with the Home Office to detect terrorist propaganda online.