The UK’s NHS has broken up a £400mn showpiece data contract into several parts, but US data analytics giant Palantir remains the most prominent bidder for the health service’s operating system.
The company is best known for its ties to the security, defence and intelligence sectors and its drive to process millions of patients’ data has alarmed some privacy activists and NHS staff.
Palantir is still set to bid for the contract to operate the NHS’s main data platform — the most lucrative element of the contract with a value of £360mn.
But now that the NHS has broken up the overall contract, Palantir would not be able to bid for associated but smaller projects for privacy technology or an app-store style marketplace. It is not clear whether it could still compete for a fourth contract covering training, implementation and deployment.
Ming Tang, chief data and analytics officer at NHS England, told the Financial Times the organisation had split up the procurement for the overall £400mn Federated Data Platform programme into four contracts to “safeguard” the service.
“Whoever processes the platform cannot own the privacy enhancing technology so the key transfer [of data] is safe,” she said.
Tang added that the much-delayed project, which will enable the sharing of data across NHS England, is awaiting sign off from the Treasury.
Suppliers learned they would be barred from bidding for all parts of the project in August, according to a document seen by the FT. An invitation to tender is expected in the coming weeks.
A senior health figure said at least one British company was likely to have a realistic chance of winning part of the contract, helping defuse concerns about a US company processing UK health data.
Palantir assumed the role of the NHS’s main data analytics provider during the pandemic, helping manage the use of ventilators and protective equipment and organise vaccinations.
The group landed a further £23.5mn contract to tackle waiting lists in December 2020.
The federated data platform is a much larger prize. Palantir, whose founders include entrepreneur Peter Thiel and chief executive Alex Karp, has maintained that the group’s technology can deliver all aspects of the programme.
Tang sought to dismiss suggestions that splitting up the contract was intended to limit Palantir’s role. “The division is just how to safeguard the NHS,” she said this week. “There is quite an obsession with Palantir. If we can find an alternative that’s better [than Palantir], that’s what we’ll end up with.”
Another person familiar with the discussions told the FT the move was the likely result of advice from procurement and data security experts, while also reflecting concerns about one company running the entire programme.
But Phil Booth at MedConfidential, a privacy campaigning group, said the division of the programme did not provide transparency on how patients’ data would be used.
Palantir, which hired two senior NHS officials over the summer, including Tang’s former deputy at NHS England, Harjeet Dhaliwal, said it was “relaxed” about the move to break up the contract. It added that the decision was “very rightly one for the NHS, and the NHS alone to make”.
It will compete for the main platform contract against other groups, including Britain’s Quantexa, a provider of data infrastructure to banks such as Standard Chartered and HSBC. Quantexa’s chief executive Vishal Marria said it planned to bid as part of a consortium with a large consulting firm.
Groups jockeying for the smaller £35mn privacy enhancing technology contract include Privitar, a British data privacy software company that has existing contracts with NHS Digital.
In a sign of concerns within the NHS about Palantir’s role, Tang faced several questions about the US company from delegates at a digital health conference this week.
Dr Marcus Baw, a GP and privacy campaigner, was applauded by some delegates when said he would not award the contract to Palantir were he in her position.
“We are going through a bloody procurement and we will buy whatever’s best out there,” Tang replied.