NHS England published heavily redacted Palantir contract as festivities began

NHS England picked the last working day before Christmas to publish a heavily redacted contract for the controversial Federated Data Platform, which it awarded to US spy-tech firm Palantir in November.

Large sections of the three contract documents – published on Friday December 22 as workers packed up for the holidays – have been blacked out, including most of the section describing “protection of personal data,” according to an official posting on the government’s tender website.

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Critics have pointed out that redacting a significant proportion of the contract and publishing it in the run-up to the festive season hardly fulfilled NHS England’s promise to ensure “that trust and transparency lessons have been learnt.”

In a briefing published about the FDP contract, the government health quango said: “Key lessons have been learned from previous data programmes including the need for a) transparency and b) data to be held in secure environments with the correct checks and balances in place. We are ensuring that trust and transparency lessons have been learnt both in terms of design, but also in how we act, for example the timely publication of information and documentation, open publication of use cases and Data Protection Impact Assessments.”

NHS England — which began its relationship with Palantir during the pandemic with the award of a £1 contract — said the FDP would provide software to link NHS trusts and regional systems and offer a consistent technical means of linking data that is already collected for patient care.

“Clinicians will easily have access to the information they need to do their job – in one place – freeing up time spent on administrative tasks and enabling them to deliver the most appropriate care for patients,” it said.

The contract award notice valued the contract at £182.2 million ($230 million) for four years, ending in February 2027. The earlier statement from NHS England said the contract could last seven years and cost up to £330 million ($412 million).

Health data campaigners are preparing for a legal challenge to the FDP deal, claiming there is no legal basis for moving the patient data to the platform within the current legal directions NHS Digital uses to obtain and share data within the NHS.

An NHS spokesperson said the move “fundamentally misunderstands how the Federated Data Platform will operate and is totally incorrect in both matters of law and fact. The platform will use only existing data legally collected by the NHS to support direct patient care, which is lawful under all relevant data protection regulations.”

Palantir became part of NHS England’s thinking during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. By providing technology in a £1 contract, arranged without a competitive process, it went on to win business worth £1 million ($1.25 million), then a £23 million ($28.7 million) contract was signed in December 2020, again without competition. More recent extension deals mean the analytics software company has won a total of £60 million ($75 million) from the NHS without competing against other companies that provide similar software.

NHS England has said the FDP competition is fair, open and transparent procurement in line with Public Contracts Regulations 2015. ®

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Lindsay Clark