Tories offer NHS IT rescue plan after major patient data losses

Tories offer NHS IT rescue plan after major patient data losses
Tories offer NHS IT rescue plan after major patient data losses 

By John Lettice
The Register
24th December 2007

The Tory party has put forward a rescue plan for the NHS IT system in 
the wake of the latest government data losses, which were revealed over 
the weekend. Nine English NHS trusts have owned up to large scale losses 
of personal data, and although in most cases the nature of this data has 
yet to be revealed, City & Hackney Primary Care Trust reportedly mislaid 
the names and addresses of 160,000 children.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, Tory Shadow Health Secretary 
Andrew Lansley said that the losses illustrated the dangers of holding 
all NHS records on a single database that could be accessed by 300,000 
individuals. The system need not however, he stressed, be entirely 
abandoned. Instead, data should be held on smaller, interoperable local 

Records could then be shared when needed, with an audit trail held of 
individual accesses. The Department of Health argued, somewhat 
unconvincingly under the circumstances, that the central database would 
protect personal database because of the strength of its security 
systems. The Tory plan, however, appears to have merit in that it 
provides a viable, but more secure, way forward using the infrastructure 
that's being put in place under the government NHS plans. Effectively, 
this kind of approach could provide the government with an escape hatch, 
should it wish to use it.

The latest breaches, a total of ten across nine trusts, have emerged as 
part of the government's post-HMRC data security review. The City & 
Hackney loss occurred when a disc containing the data failed to arrive 
at an East London hospital, while other losses are though to have been 
of data stored on laptops and transferred on flash drives. It's worth 
noting that as this indicates poor handling practices for bulk data 
(precisely the problem that has been horribly exposed in government 
systems recently), neither the centralised system nor the Tory 
alternative is of itself a fix.

The Department of Health claimed that there is no evidence that the data 
might have fallen into the wrong hands, but said that the breaches were 
being dealt with locally by the individual trusts. Initially it said it 
did not have details of how many patients have been affected, but this 
morning it estimated a total of 168,000. It is, one might observe, a 
puzzle that the DoH seems unable to furnish details of the problem, but 
is able to say that there probably isn't one - how does that work?

It's also worth noting that, were it not for the HMRC blunder and the 
consequent security review being carried out by Cabinet Secretary Gus 
O'Donnell, all of the data losses now being reported would still have 
taken place, but few if any would have been revealed. So far the 
government has published one interim report on the HMRC incident and a 
progress report on the broader O'Donnell review. Full reports on both 
are due "in the spring."

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