Tory plan for MS, Google, others to hold NHS records floated
Cameroon Google-love suddenly becomes a disadvantage?
The Conservative Party has declined to comment on claims by the Times that under a future Tory government, UK health records "could be transferred to Google or Microsoft." This is described by the paper as "the first concrete proposal to emerge from the Tories' 'post-bureaucratic age' agenda."
The proposal, however, is less concrete than the headline might suggest. Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley is currently conducting a review of the NHS IT programme, and no firm commitments are likely to be made prior to its completion. A party spokeswoman told The Register that this would be prior to the next election, but would be no more specific than that.
Google has been linked to Tory health plans in the past, however, by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator, earlier this year. He referred to "the potential to replace the clunky NHS computer programme with the free-to-use Google Health". Nelson documented the Cameron regime's love affair with California and the strong links between Google and the Tories, built to some extent via Tory strategy guru Steve Hilton's marriage to Rachel Whetstone, Google VP communications and public affairs.
Nelson's largely uncritical piece indicated what other might see as a worrying descent into Web 2.0-think by the Tories:
After three years with the Cameroons at the helm, there is now a tightly knit network between Tories and Californians — between west London and West Coast, so to speak. Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, sits on Mr Cameron’s economic advisory council. Doug Richard, a leading Californian entrepreneur, has conducted a review for the Tories on small business. Last summer, Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron met Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the 35-year-old founders of Google and discussed (as Mr Osborne later put it) ‘the contrast between their world and the world of government, stuck as too much of it is in a bygone bureaucratic age.’
The Google–Tory nexus is the most interesting. Mr Cameron has flown over to its headquarters (where Ms Whetstone now works) to give a speech. Mr Schmidt was, in turn, invited to address the 2006 Tory conference. Both are fascinated by what Mr Osborne refers to as the ‘Googlisation of politics’ — the accountability that instant search engines encourage, and the online communities that they can help to nurture. And it is this which has inspired two of the first prospective strategies that a Conservative government would undertake.
Undoubtedly there is a real infatuation there, and the extent of the links between the two suggest that the Tory High Command might not yet have got around to wondering about Google's own secrecy and lack of transparency.
And it does seem likely that Tory health policy will involve moving at least some patient records into the private sector, and that versions of Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault might be candidates for this, alongside private health organisation already operating in the UK. The Times, quoting a "senior Tory source," says: "This is an agenda we are massively keen on. We're thinking about how in government the architecture of technology needs to change, with people 'owning' their own data, including their health records."
The source added that the Tories were "100 per cent certain" that there would not be an exclusive deal with one provider, and that multiple providers were envisaged. Google does provide a better headline, however, and foregrounds the Cameroon-Google relationship. Which, in the long run, might be no bad thing. ®
But when will potential employers or police ever actually do this? Yeah, go ahead and scoff and call me naive, but when has this ever happened with regard to things we already have online or consider confidential? I've never been forced to login into my bank details, or hand over my credit card details or personal information to the police, a possible employer, or anyone. And guess what happens to the first company or police department that decides to do this? National scandal, and any information they may have gleaned from people's records will be deemed inadmissable for whatever they were trying to do (deem suitable for employment, or prosecution, etc.).
That's all well and good, but if your records are viewable by you from anywhere you can be coerced into revealing them. For instance, you're after a job and they say here's a computer, show us yer medical records, you may find yourself in a quandary: job or no job?
Ditto the police. And guess what, it's all legal, no third party has accessed your records, you've had a look at them of your own free will.
I was worried about Cameron at first, but the more he says, the better I like him. However I'm not so sure about this...
Still the advantage of being in opposition is the chance to think about policy in a different way, and part of the idea at least I do like, which is trying to hand control of people's own data back to them. Something this government is currently very bad at. It's at least worth thinking about, and BUPA and other UK healthcare companies are also in the running, so there should be plenty of UK options for storing your data as well as MS/Google.
To be fair to the Conservatives, if they do believe that people need to have access to (and control of) their own data, then they've either got to be looking at building a whole new set of government databases with public access or control or allowing the private sector to do this. Both have their downsides, but given current government IT performance you can't blame them for being extremely wary of opting for the 'let's have a huge new government IT project' option. Especially as they're expecting to come to power running an almost £200 BILLION annual deficit!
I'd guess that they've had to tear up most of the policy work they've done in the last 2-3 years as the realisation dawns that there's going to be no money to spend, if/when they do win the election.
Being a new minister in June 2010 is not going to be a fun job! Most choices you end up making will be between bad and worse options, rather than in the fat times when there was plenty of money to waste in the hopes of achieving 'best'. So we probably ought to cut Cameron a bit of slack.
Beer icon: Because spending the next 5 years permanently drunk sounds like the best option.