The Covid-19 pandemic has pointed to the need to shake up and strengthen data sharing in the public sector, according to a new parliamentary report.
The House of Lords Public Services Committee (PSC) has highlighted the issues in its first report, A critical juncture for public services: lessons from Covid-19.
It acknowledges the big steps taken by some organisations in using data and digital to cope with the crisis, but also points to a series of shortcomings that have undermined the effort and could make it difficult to sustain the progress.
The report emphasises the importance of data sharing and says the pandemic has highlighted failures in how it works between national and local services. It cites the example of local authorities not receiving information from the NHS on shielded groups early on, and says the lack of a systematic data collection system overseen by a central body had impeded efforts to track infection rates.
Overall, there has been a reluctance at the centre to share data at local level, prompting the PSC to recommend that the Government and national public services review the relevant systems.
It also calls for a white paper setting out how devolution in England will support local areas and city regions in adopting new data standards, and finding common approaches and tools for information governance.
The latter point reflects a finding that, while some local areas shared data effectively, organisations in others lacked the confidence and understanding of data protection laws to do so effectively. This requires the Government to work with the Information Commissioner’s Office on relevant guidance.
Another chapter of the report acknowledges the successful innovation with digital technology in response to the pandemic, citing examples such as the swift move to online consultations by GPs and the deployment of online services for vulnerable people. But it warns that an over-reliance on digital could deprive many people of access to the support they need.
It says the Government needs to evaluate the performance of services that moved online during the first lockdown, but also be ready to prioritise funding for digital services.
One of the broader recommendations of the report is that advances in digital technology should be used to increase access to public services, particularly for hard-to-reach groups, and should be applied intelligently. This means that online should not replace face-to-face services if to do so would disadvantage the service user.
In addition, users must be involved in the design and delivery of public services.
Chair of the committee Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top highlighted the failures to protect specific groups in the pandemic response.
“The Government, local authorities and other public service providers are not working together effectively to protect vulnerable children,” she said.
“Before COVID-19 many vulnerable children couldn’t get the public services they needed. With most unable to attend school because of the lockdown they had little support. Many more have become invisible after losing contact with public services during the pandemic.”
She added: “There should be no return to the pre-Covid-19 status quo.
“The fight against health inequality should be a priority for the Government. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people suffered disproportionately due to health inequalities and unequal access to services.
“The Government's own pandemic planning identified that social care would need significant support during the outbreak of a disease like Covid-19, yet social care was the poor relation to the NHS when it came to funding during lockdown. Discharging people from hospital into care settings without testing and with inadequate PPE led to the tragic loss of thousands of older and disabled people.”
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