Ageing NHS IT slowed flow of data on vulnerable citizens, NAO finds

Written by Jim Dunton on 21 May 2021 in News

Report identifies delays in accessing information to alert those that needed to shield as chief auditor points to ‘challenges posed by legacy data and IT systems’

Credit: Chokniti Khongchum from Pixabay 

Difficulty in accessing data from ageing health-service IT systems slowed the process of contacting alerting vulnerable citizens to alert them to shield from coronavirus, a report from the National Audit Office has found.

The NAO said the testing of plans and policies for the identification and shielding of clinically extremely vulnerable people had not been one of the objectives of 2016’s Exercise Cygnus project, which was carried out to assess the UK’s preparedness for an influenza pandemic.

The report, published this week, said obtaining contact information on some 420,000 clinically extremely vulnerable people took several weeks longer than it had to centrally identify an initial tranche of 870,000 people because of “the challenge of extracting usable data from different NHS and GP IT systems”.

This finding was one of many that instances identified by auditors in which departments lacked detailed contingency plans to deal with the pandemic as it unfolded. The crisis has also highlighted the need for government to adopt a more systematic approach to ensuring the resilience of key services, the NAO found.

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HM Revenue and Customs was forced to rely on planning for financial rescues and the experience of other countries in its initial response to the economic support packages required in spring last year, the report concluded, while the Department for Education’s emergency response function had been designed to manage disruptions due to localised events such as floods.

The NAO also warned that the current £372bn cost estimate of the UK’s pandemic response should not be regarded as a short-term expense. It said some commitments and liabilities were likely to remain for the medium and long term, with “significant uncertainties about their amount and timeframe”.

Auditors also found areas to praise, and said there were “many examples of impressive national and local responses” to the urgent need for healthcare and economic support that the pandemic created.

But the watchdog said the nation’s experience with Covid-19 showed the need for a more systematic approach to preparing for crises and making better use of data in the process. It flagged the proper integration of NHS and adult-social-care services as an important area for improvement, noting that “certain aspects” of the pandemic response – such as the supply of personal protective equipment – reflected a greater emphasis on health than on social care.

NAO head Gareth Davies said it was vital for ministers and senior officials to pay close attention to what had worked well – and what had not – over the past 15 months to better prepare the nation for future emergencies and improve day-to-day efficiency.

“Departments will need to reflect on the lessons learned to ensure that they capitalise on the benefits and opportunities these new ways of working have brought,” he said. “While the response to the pandemic has provided new learning from both what has worked well and what has not worked well, it has also laid bare existing fault lines within society, such as the risk of widening inequalities, and within public service delivery and government itself. The relationship between adult social care and the NHS, workforce shortages, the challenges posed by legacy data and IT systems, and the financial pressure felt by parts of the system all require long-term solutions.”


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