UK National Shielding Service (NSS)
COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the importance of data infrastructure to ensure effective data sharing (data quality, validation, matching, use of identifiers), as well as the effectiveness of using digital tools and practices to deliver important, cross-government services. As part of the UK government’s response to the pandemic, five government departments came together to set up a National Shielding Service to deliver care and food supplies to approximately 2.2m people in England who were classified as clinically extremely vulnerable people. The project was delivered in partnership with central government, local authorities, food wholesalers and supermarkets.
The clinically vulnerable dataset was shared securely by the National Health Service (NHS) with the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) to allow the government to direct food and other supplies to shielded people, to request priority supermarket delivery slots, and keep local authorities informed of who in their borough needed support. The data included information such as name, address and contact details but not any of the individuals’ medical history.
People who were confirmed as clinically extremely vulnerable could register with the Vulnerable People Service, which was built and run by GDS. Additionally, the Department for Work and Pensions followed up with anyone on the dataset that had not registered through either methods, using their existing call centre capability.
A key part of the service developed by GDS was a secure data transfer system, to securely distribute data to local authorities and other parties. This allowed sharing of limited information from the NHS Clinically Shielded List (such as name and address) with local authorities, wholesalers who would deliver food parcels, or supermarkets who would give priority access for online shopping. This was all backed up by data sharing consents and privacy notices, according to GDPR practices.
Specific issues addressed and anticipated impact
The case study of the UK’s National Shielding Service (NSS) helps illustrate the power of effective use of data to improve the lives of millions. There are approximately 2.2m people in England identified as clinically extremely vulnerable by the NHS, including people with severe respiratory conditions or certain types of cancer.
As a result of the NSS, over 3 million basic supply parcels were delivered during the crisis, with around 300,000 boxes being distributed every week. Also, a number of secondary services were developed, such as casework management ticketing and a phone line for Members of Parliament.
The NSS was enabled by the strong collaboration across central and local government along with voluntary groups and private sector suppliers. New Shielding teams, Directorates, and governance groups spun up across the UK who created new digital services within days. By using data generated from those using the service through feedback and service analytics, the UK government could focus on iterating policy and product from real world feedback in almost real time.
Sensitive personal data from the NHS Shielded Patient List was shared within the scope of the UK’s data protection law and using secure means to transfer data. The data policy and data privacy teams in the Government Digital Service (GDS) worked collaboratively to bridge the conversations between the GDS engineering team, policy leads and Data Protection Officers across government. GDS also set up a shielding data governance oversight group to review and suggest improvements to data sharing arrangements.
The already existing collaborative nature of the UK government facilitated a coherent approach and swift policy formulation, which has been an additional factor contributing to the successful implementation of secure data sharing and coordination. The NSS demonstrates that having flexible and context-specific data policies will facilitate fast yet sustainable responses to crises like COVID-19.
Government Digital Service
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)
Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
National Health Service (NHS)
NHSX (the digital agency supporting the NHS with digital transformation)