The head of NHSX met with Palantir months before the tech giant secured a contract to handle Covid-19 data which is now worth £23million.

Emails released to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) under freedom of information requests show Matthew Gould had “a very positive meeting” with the US firm in October 2019.

Palantir was drafted in to run the NHS Covid-19 Data Store, along with a suite of global tech firms, in March 2020 for an initial cost of £1. The contract was due to expire in June but was extended for four months at a cost of £1million. In December 2020 the firm was awarded a £23m two-year contract.

Its appointment to the data store was said to be an emergency measure in response to the pandemic, but emails seen by the BIJ suggest discussions between the firm and NHS chiefs about how the company could work with patient data had begun as early as summer 2019.

On 2 July 2019, the evening before NHSX was officially launched, Palantir’s UK boss Louis Mosley hosted a meal with chair of NHS England David Prior where they discussed potential future uses of NHS data, according to the BIJ.

Following the meal, Mosely emailed Prior to say “I’m more convinced than ever that the UK is uniquely placed to pioneer the next generation of medical discoveries and treatments”.

Prior responded to encourage Mosely to get in touch if he could “help us structure and curate our data so that it helps us deliver better care and provides a more insightful data base for medical research”.

Gould was then copied into emails offering a demonstration of Palantir’s software and, over the coming months, the company continued to engage with Prior, Gould and other government officials.

An NHS Health and Care Data Day was held in October 2019 which focused on the use of NHS data and the potential creation of a “single, standardised, event-based, longitudinal patient record” containing the data of 65 million patients, pulled together from GPs, hospitals, mental health professionals as well as information from the private health sector.

Palantir was not at the data day but other global tech firms including Microsoft and Amazon were represented. Both firms were also awarded contracts for the NHS Covid-19 Data Store at the onset of the pandemic.

However, the released emails reveal that Mosley told Prior that Palantir had held “a very positive meeting” with Gould earlier that month. NHSX confirmed the meeting to Digital Health News but said Palantir did not secure any work with NHSX, or the wider NHS, as a result of the meeting.

Prior and Mosely reportedly met again in San Francisco on 14 January 2020 for a demonstration of Palantir’s software, along with “experts from within the NHS”.

Cori Crider, co-founder and director of tech justice firm Foxglove Legal, told Digital Health News: “It’s bizarre that the government tried to sell the datastore as some kind of emergency fix when in fact, as we can see from the emails, finding a role for Palantir in the NHS was a long-term plan.”

Crider has campaigned for the government to be transparent about deals with big tech firms since contracts for the NHS Covid-19 Data Store were first awarded.

Palantir’s work on the data store, and now wider roles within the government, has attracted criticism around transparency and potential access to NHS data. The government failed to publish the firm’s contract until June 2020, several months after it was first awarded.

Last week health secretary Matt Hancock was found to have broken the law by failing to publish details of coronavirus-related contracts within the required 30 day timeframe.

Palantir has previously been trialled by London’s Metropolitan Police and has been drafted in to oversee the UK’s post-Brexit border and customs data. The firm’s partnership with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the department charged with deporting undocumented migrants, has sparked concern among privacy campaigners.

privacy notice relating to the NHS Covid-19 Data Store states Palantir, and other tech companies involved, only have access to pseudonymised and anonymous data, but concerns have been raised about how private tech firms could be using NHS data.

Crider said the lack of transparency around contracts with tech firms risked a “rerun of the Care.data fiasco”.

“We’re not opposed to safe, trustworthy uses of data to support care. But patient juries consistently show people cautiously are willing to share data – for patient and public benefit, more than private profit,” she told Digital Health News.

“The future of health data in the NHS could be bright. But if we want to avoid a rerun of the Care.data fiasco, these deals have to be done in the open, in a way that commands public trust.”

Legal challenge

Foxglove Legal and openDemocracy has brought a legal challenge over the health services’ deal with Palantir. They say the government “quietly gave” the firm a long-term role in handling personal health information when the multi-million-pound contract was awarded in December.

“The government claimed the initial Palantir ‘datastore’ deal, signed last March, was a short-term, emergency response to the pandemic. But December’s new, two-year contract reaches far beyond Covid: to Brexit, general business planning and much more,” they said in a statement.

Citing the recent white paper for health and care they warned “sweeping changes to our health service are on the way” and that the government has a “legal duty” to consult the public before “massive deals” are struck.

The white paper aims to improve the use of data within the NHS and capitalise on progress made during the Covid-19 pandemic to deliver a more joined up health and care system.

NHSX, NHS England and Palantir were contacted for comment.