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31 March 2021updated 29 Jun 2021 1:23pm

The fight over Palantir’s role in the NHS is heating up

Digital rights campaigners have called on the government to provide proof that it hasn’t made concessions in the legal battle.

By Oscar Williams

NHS England has been embroiled in a war of words over its work with Peter Thiel’s controversial data engineering firm Palantir after digital rights campaigners claimed their latest legal victory.

On Tuesday 30 March campaigners at Foxglove and OpenDemocracy revealed the government had agreed to host a series of “citizen juries” before deciding if a tool – developed by Palantir and other tech firms to predict NHS demand during the pandemic – would be repurposed for non-Covid uses. The campaigners have warned that there has been a lack of accountability surrounding Palantir’s work processing sensitive health data, noting that its contracts, worth up to £24.5m, were awarded without competitive tender.

Hours later, NHS England’s press office issued a terse rebuttal. “Actually OpenDemocracy have had to drop their court case unilaterally as it was apparent even to them that the NHS has always acted in accordance with its legal responsibilities,” a spokesperson said. “They therefore stood no chance of succeeding in their completely spurious claim. It would be more honest if they actually came clean with their crowdfunders that far from ‘winning’ this case they had no choice but to drop it when they realised they hadn’t a leg to stand on.”

Sources close to the deal told the New Statesman that the citizen juries had been arranged before the legal action was taken. Foxglove accepts that NHS England had agreed to consult the public on the future use of patient data, but is adamant that it had not previously conceded that the use of the datastore for non-pandemic purposes would depend on the outcome of citizen juries.

“In the last 12 months OpenDemocracy asked the government time and time again to consult the public about the datastore,” Martha Dark, a director at Foxglove, told the New Statesman this morning. “Their response was continuously that they were not required to. If they had planned to engage the public about the future of the datastore and Palantir’s role in it before being sued, they had literally months​ of legal correspondence in which to tell us that was their plan. They didn’t.”

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Dark added: “Make no mistake, the government have now agreed to consult the public because of this case. This is just the start of the democratic debate we need about Palantir’s role in the NHS – a few patient juries aren’t enough – but they had refused to give an inch about the public’s proper role until we sued them, so this is an important principle conceded. And we invite them to publish their legal correspondence with us in full so the public can see their formal position before they were sued, versus after.”

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[See also: How one of America’s most controversial billionaires cracked the NHS]

NHS England did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would publish the legal correspondence. The New Statesman asked on Tuesday afternoon for evidence that the citizen juries it had previously agreed to host would focus on the use of the Covid-19 datastore.

As the New Statesman has previously reported, many in Whitehall believe the datastore has improved the NHS’s response to the pandemic.

But Foxglove and OpenDemocracy have raised concerns about Palantir’s presence in the health service, including whether it could harm trust among minority ethnic communities given its work at the US border. Palantir directed the New Statesman‘s queries to NHS England.