UK wouldn't have coped with coronavirus crisis without help of tech giants, health minister says

Key Points
  • Health Minister Matt Hancock says the U.K. wouldn't have coped with coronavirus without tech partnerships.
  • The U.K. government handed a health contract to secretive data firm Palantir for just £1.
  • Britain is among the worst-affected countries, with over 40,000 deaths.
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock arrives for the weekly Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on 21 May, 2019 in London, England.
Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Britain couldn't have coped with the coronavirus crisis if not for the help of tech giants like Google and Microsoft, Health Minister Matt Hancock claimed Wednesday.

The government has faced scrutiny over its dealings with some tech companies in health care. Last week, politics website OpenDemocracy and law firm Foxglove published a trove of documents showing the contracts agreed by the National Health Service (NHS) with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Palantir.

It was revealed that Palantir was charged just £1 ($1.27) for the use of its Foundry data management software, while Google offered free technical and advisory support. Some commentators fear this could allow the secretive Peter Thiel-founded firm to profit from the deal down the line. But Health Minister Matt Hancock defended the government's use of tech companies during the public health crisis.

"There is no way we would have been able to cope with this pandemic, and deal with it in the way that we have been able to, without the support of tech companies," Hancock said in an online talk at the CogX U.K. tech conference. "They've been absolutely brilliant at putting together the platforms that we need."

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The U.K. government has been roundly criticized for its handling of the epidemic given that Britain is among the worst-affected countries in terms of both coronavirus cases and deaths from the disease. According to data from John Hopkins University, the country's death toll has surpassed 40,000, while more than 290,000 Brits have contracted Covid-19.

The government recently launched its Track and Trace program to test patients and identify the people they have recently been in contact with. Such contact tracing systems have been pushed by experts as an effective way of helping contain the spread of the virus. Britain, like other countries, is also testing a contact tracing app, though it hasn't yet been launched publicly.

"Building the Test and Trace program, that is all underpinned by technology," Hancock said. "It's a true public-private effort."

Critics worry the government's approach to health deals with third parties could result in a potential privatization of the NHS, the U.K.'s publicly-funded health system.

Responding to concerns over NHS privatization Hancock the "debate" over public-private partnerships was "for the birds" and "completely out of date."

"What we need is teamwork, partnership, and that's what's delivered during the crisis, and that is the way that we'll go forward," he said.

Earlier in the day, health start-up Babylon admitted accidentally showing users videos of other patients' consultations. The firm discovered that a small number of users had been affected by the data breach, which it said was the result of a software error.

Hancock admitted he wasn't aware of the situation with Babylon despite using the service himself instead of seeing a standard General Practitioner (GP), a doctor who deals with most health matters in the community. After the talk ended, he was heard saying he should have known, "especially since they're my GP."