IT budget cuts increasing NHS’ risk from cyber-attacks, says NHS director

A director at London North West NHS Trust has warned that IT budget cuts faced by the NHS may increase the organisation's risks from cyber attacks.

The director also claims that WannaCry ransomware affected more NHS hospitals than initially claimed by NHS England.

Alan Brown, interim director at London North West Healthcare Trust, has released a report highlighting the impact of budget cuts on the NHS' cyber-security efforts. In a report covered by the Mirror, Brown has raised concerns on how cuts imposed by the government on the NHS' IT budget has impacted preventative IT maintenance which is essential for the fight against cyber-criminals.

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“The increasing pressure on ICT to deploy and support new technology at the expense of preventative maintenance, plus the request for further cost savings in the ICT service, is further increasing the risk of more attacks and the time it takes to respond and recover from them,” he said in a report.

The London North West Healthcare Trust was forced to shut down its IT systems following the WannaCry ransomware attack which had initially affected at least ten computers owned by the trust. Almost all systems affected by the ransomware were found to be running older and unsecured versions of the Windows operating system.

In his report, Brown also highlighted the fact that “conflicting priorities and activities on the team” are responsible for a lack of up-to-date patch management which has, in turn, left a number of systems vulnerable to future cyber-attacks.

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Earlier this year, NHS chief Simon Stevens, as well as several government reports, confirmed that NHS England will see budget cuts of up to 0.6 percent in the next financial year. In a written statement to the House of Commons, Health Minister Philip Dunne also confirmed that NHS England will see only a 0.9 percent increase in its budget in 2017, a 0.6 percent fall in 2018 and a 0.2 percent increase in 2019. The statement contradicts Theresa May's commitment to set aside an additional £10bn grant for NHS England.

“It is unbelievable that they keep asking health and care services to provide more services, for more people, with less and less resource. These vital services are already stretched to breaking point. We need a long-term funding settlement for health and care. Figures like this show just how essential this initiative is,” said Tim Farron, a Liberal Democrat leader to The Independent.

A research conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of Oxford, and Blackburn with Darwen borough council and published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has revealed that funding cuts to the NHS led to excess deaths of at least 30,000 people in 2015.

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“Expenditure has failed to keep pace with demand and the situation has been exacerbated by dramatic reductions in the welfare budget of £16.7bn and in social care spending. The possibility that the cuts to health and social care are implicated in almost 30,000 excess deaths is one that needs further exploration," said Martin McKee, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The government termed the research paper as a “triumph of personal bias over research”. “Every year there is significant variation in reported excess deaths, and in the year following this study they fell by nearly 20,000, undermining any link between pressure on the NHS and the number of deaths," said a Department of Health spokesman.

“Moreover, to blame an increase in a single year on ‘cuts’ to the NHS budget is arithmetically impossible given that budget rose by almost £15bn between 2009-10 and 2014-15.”