Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/07/06/tory_nhs_googlization/

Tory plan for MS, Google, others to hold NHS records floated

Cameroon Google-love suddenly becomes a disadvantage?

By John Lettice

Posted in Government, 6th July 2009 09:55 GMT

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. ®