The biggest stories and talking points in health policy

Digital dangers

In March, and again in late April, IT departments across the NHS were alerted to a critical security update, or patch, and urged to apply it to most of their Windows computers and servers. Quickly.

Applying these patches isn’t as simple as pressing a button, though there are programmes that make it far easier.

An acute trust will typically run as many as 60 IT systems – some of them older than the trust’s employees. Some software will only run old versions of Windows, or Internet Explorer, or a complicated combination of both.

Some systems are fragile and prone to break in response to changes in their operating environment – like a new security patch. Many are critical to supporting patient care.

So many trusts would have applied this latest security patch slowly, carefully, testing as they go, once various departments agreed to the change. They would have balanced the theoretical threat of a cyberattack against the more tangible risk of losing access to a critical clinical system.

Our analysis, published on Tuesday, shows at least a fifth of all trusts and likely far more had not moved fast enough when the WannaCry ransomware virus struck on 12 May.

NHS leaders played down the impact of the attack, and played up the effectiveness of the response, but our research makes it clear that the disruption was unprecedented.

More than 15,000 appointments and operations were cancelled. The cost in lost clinical time, downstream rescheduling and incomplete data will probably never be quantified.

New NHSI chair

Richard Douglas, the former director general at the Department of Health, has been appointed as interim chair of NHS Improvement.

His appointment starts on 21 July, when Ed Smith’s tenure ends, and the DH said this will last until 31 December or until “a new chair is appointed, whichever is sooner”.

Last month it emerged that civil servants were vetting a number of candidates for the role, including former chief executive of TalkTalk Baroness Dido Harding. The Conservative peer and wife of MP John Penrose was thought to be a leading candidate.

Health minister Philip Dunne is yet to make a decision on a preferred candidate for substantive chair.

The appointment of Mr Douglas as interim chair is a clear signal of a requirement to maintain financial rigour for the NHS provider sector. Mr Douglas was the longest serving finance director general for the DH and he also served for three years as head of the government finance profession, an appointment made by the Treasury.