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NAO highlights data extraction difficulties in pandemic shielding programme


Mark Say Managing Editor


Difficulties in extracting information from NHS and GP IT systems caused problems in protecting clinically vulnerable people during the pandemic lockdown, according to government’s central auditor.

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The National Audit Office (NAO) has identified the issue in a new report, Protecting and supporting the clinically extremely vulnerable during lockdown.

The government launched the shielding programme to provide food, medicines and basic care to people with serious health problems, helping to shield them from possible contact with the coronavirus. Local authorities have taken a leading role in providing the support.

But the report says it took time for people to be identified as clinically vulnerable, and therefore receive formal support, due to challenges in extracting data from different IT systems. In addition, there was a need for GPs and healthcare trusts to review the lists of vulnerable people from a clinical perspective.

Subsequently, NHS Digital had to develop the shielding list in several iterations as more data became available.

Once changes had been to the systems the clinicians responded quickly with their review and the size of the list increased quickly to include 2.2 million people by early May 2020. However, there were some criticisms of government’s communication with vulnerable people, with some failing to understand why they had been advised to shield, or why it was no longer necessary during the summer.

Need for access

The NAO recommends that the Department for Health and Social Care should ensure that councils and other organisations supporting vulnerable people should have easy but secure access to healthcare data. It adds that the department should set out the key data needed for a future pandemic or civil emergency, and carry out a review of the effectiveness of the shielding service by April.

Commenting on the findings, head of the NAO Gareth Davies said: “The shielding programme was an important response to support clinically extremely vulnerable people asked to shield. It provided support to many of those most at risk from Covid-19, and delivered food to just over 500,000 people.

“However, challenges pulling together data meant it took time to quickly identify those needing to shield, and therefore eligible for support. Government has learnt lessons from this programme and is better placed should this type of support be required again.”

The Local Government Association responded to the report by emphasising the need of councils to have reliable access to relevant data.

Its community wellbeing board’s chair, Councillor Ian Hudspeth, said: “As this report recommends, it is crucial that councils receive regular, secure access to data, so that they can reach out and support the right people at the right time.

“Councils also want to continue working across government to share their experiences and what local people are telling them, to continue to support every vulnerable member of their communities."

Image from iStock, Kieferpix

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