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Michael White: Can we trust police when it comes to patient data and confidentiality?

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There has been much tabloid hysteria around the concept of patient data access in the NHS. Now the police are asking for greater access to confidential GP medical records but even Sir Peter Fahy can see it’s a cheeky move

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What’s this? The police want greater access to confidential GP medical records without necessarily obtaining the prior consent of the individual concerned?

Even Sir Peter Fahy, Manchester’s police chief and the man floating the idea, can see that it’s cheeky in the present climate. He’s right.

‘With proper safeguards patient data could do a lot of good’

When NHS England’s plans to collate GP metadata from us all for research - and commercial - purposes took a faltering step forward in February, it hit a wall of tabloid hysteria and stepped back to rethink devices for voter reassurance.

At the time I took a “keep calm and carry on” view. With proper safeguards it could do a lot of good. Plenty agree.

Big Brother

Professional and public suspicion - reflected in website analysis and comment - is a mixture of paranoia and concern that such data is open to abuse or exploitation, commercial or otherwise.

Edward Snowden’s revelations were fresh in the public mind, reminding us all just how invasive Big Brother technology now is, and not just at GCHQ level either.

Late for supper one night I phoned my son to say “we’re on our way”. “No you’re not, you’re still parked outside the house,” he replied. My iPhone tracker gave me away.

‘Mr Davis may be oversensitive to limits of anonymised data’

MPs are as divided as voters - unlike health professionals? Back in February David Davis, the libertarian Tory MP, challenged health minister Dan Poulter.

He confirmed that police pursuing serious crime will have “backdoor” access - which was Mr Snowden’s complaint about spy agency dealings with Google - to the NHS’s new arm’s length database, even the records of patients who have opted out. Previously they would have had to trace a suspect’s GP.

As one of only 100 people in Britain whose nose has been broken five times, Mr Davis may be oversensitive to limits of anonymised data. No system is perfect, but will the good outweigh the potential for bad? I think so.

Police complicity

The Department of Health is persevering. But the police? At this point I jump ship and march under Mr Davis’s banner, noting in passing that the British Medical Association reminds Guardian readers that patient confidentiality is an ancient piece of wisdom that outweighs the occasional inconvenience of coppers navigating current checks and balances.

Of course, we can all understand the target groups Sir Peter cites: the mentally ill, the frail and confused elderly, assorted substance abusers, those vulnerable to domestic violence, and a growing focus of police time, manpower and money.

“We could do a better job if we had greater access to information,” he explains.

‘Patient confidentiality is an ancient piece of wisdom that outweighs the occasional inconvenience of coppers’

Well, we can all say that. It’s what Andy Coulson probably said at the News of the World when they decided to adopt industrial scale phone hacking to keep ahead of the Fleet Street pack, the crime for which the ex-editor and Number 10 man was jailed at the Old Bailey.

You would be appalled at the trivial targets pursued - drugs, sex and showbiz - without a shred of public interest, as distinct from being interesting to the public. Would they or did they turn away Mid Staffordshire whistleblowers because they were too busy hounding actress Sienna Miller, I sometimes wonder? Little people got hurt too.

Irrelevant, you ask? No. Nick Davies’s book Hack Attack: How the Truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch confirms a shocking degree of police complicity in what the tabloids were doing, which included political hacking to help intimidate MPs.

It went much further than information trade offs and mutual back scratching. Senior officers at the Met Office lied for four years to cover up the scale of NotW hacking. It was a corruption far worse than MPs expenses.

The cops have lost our trust. GPs have not.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

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