COVID-19 is one of the biggest challenges the NHS has ever faced, and it's crucial that the NHS bulldoze normal processes and adapt new and better ways of working, argues Melissa Morris

In the space of a few weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak has transformed the world. It will be the greatest tragedy of our generation, with great human cost and economic cost. As I write this, the death toll in the UK is 13,000. I am receiving scores of WhatsApps each hour from friends in the tech community who are furloughing staff and making mass redundancies.

While everyone's lives have been upended, no one has felt the impact more than the National Health Service. As the country battles the spread of the virus, staff are struggling with the pressure to bring the country through this time, putting themselves at great personal risk with little support, communication, direction or protective equipment.

In these unprecedented times, industry and society alike have responded to the call to support the NHS, whether it is staying at home, closing up shop or volunteering. Yet this support alone cannot solve one of the fundamental issues preventing the NHS from the most effective response possible ? its long-standing fear of the private sector and a fear of innovation.

We've seen some steps being taken to make use of the available technology. The establishment of NHSX demonstrates a desire to push for wider use of technology within the service. This is the unit behind managing the development of a contact-tracing app that will be used to trace COVID-19 transmissions as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

All of this is in line with the Health Secretary Matt Hancock's vision for the NHS, to build a new generation of digital services. Despite this drive to make use of technology, there remain too many systemic challenges within the NHS which prevent its full deployment and restrict the use of the full range of tools at our disposal.

The hesitation to innovate has plagued the NHS throughout its history. Previous modernisations and implementation of technology have proved expensive and there is a graveyard of disbanded IT projects which have left deep and unhealed scars among the NHS establishment. This has led to a widespread reluctance to introduce new NHS-wide technology that could support the front line in their vital work. For example, scheduling is still done on pen and paper in a number of hospitals around the country, we do not have widespread adoption of telehealth technology and staff are still chasing for payments 3 months after they have worked a shift.

One area that suffers as a result of this outdated approach is recruitment in the service ? in fact, the NHS spends more than £3 billion annually on temporary recruitment alone. This is purely driven by resistance to embracing new technology to more effectively deploy staff. This figure is sure to rise during COVID. But the NHS would rather sustain this huge burdensome cost than bring in new technology which could fix it.

Even as we battle through COVID-19, there is even no clear way to collate data from the thousands of individual GP surgeries throughout the country to see where staffing shortages are being felt. As more and more doctors are moved away from in-person care to telehealth and 111, the NHS desperately needs to embrace the technology that exists to help them build up a wider picture, identify staffing shortages and support them in their fight against the virus. In this new world, playing it safe cannot be an option.

Write for us.

We're always on the lookout for talented writers and welcome submissions. Please send your opinion piece or pitch to:

Crises like this require ripping up the rulebook. COVID-19 is one of the biggest challenges the NHS has ever faced ? likely the biggest in our lifetimes ? and it's crucial that the NHS bulldoze normal processes and adapt new and better ways of working. Only then can we help the health system to both tackle the outbreak and become better and more effective in the long term.

Crises often act as a catalyst for innovation, and this time must be no different.

As we have seen across all sectors, difficult circumstances have brought new solutions, ideas and technology to the forefront. In particular we have seen a great response from the tech sector. From symptom-tracking apps to staffing platforms, the tech community has offered up a range of innovative solutions to help the NHS tackle the problem.

Now it is down to leaders in the health service to trust in these solutions, truly collaborate with the tech sector and embrace innovation.

There is high motivation and even greater capability in the tech ecosystem to support our NHS and help in the fight against COVID-19, but the NHS must be open-minded and implement some of the new and transformational technology and solutions that are being offered.

At this time, it's more crucial than ever that the NHS is bold, embraces innovation and collaborates with the tech industry.

If there ever was a time for the Health Secretary to deliver on his technology vision for the NHS, this is it. An opportunity has presented itself and he should seize it.

The COVID-19 outbreak will be remembered as a crucial moment for the NHS; let's ensure it is remembered as a time when the health sector rose to the challenge and collaborated to drive innovation and deliver the best possible response.

Our lives depend on the NHS moving with the times and continuing to find new solutions. Simply put, it must get over its fear of innovation and heal the scars of the past if we are truly going to weather the storm and emerge with a stronger system.

22 votes

Sign-up for free to stay up to date with the latest political news, analysis and insight from the Comment Central team.

By entering your email address you are agreeing to Comment Central’s privacy policy