back to article UK's NHS Digital hands £8m contract to lab data biz after trouble matching COVID-19 tests to health records

The UK's NHS Digital – an executive non-departmental public body for health service tech support – has awarded an £8m contract without competition to X-Lab, which builds healthcare software systems. The tender document cited the "extreme urgency brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic situation" in justifying the decision not …

  1. Andy Non Silver badge

    £8m contract without competition

    I wonder which MP or government official is related to the CEO of X-Lab?

    1. gobaskof

      Re: £8m contract without competition

      You can't assume the CEO is related to an MP. It may just be that the owner has a pole dancing pole in their flat and are good friends with Boris.

      1. MatBarrowXLab

        Re: £8m contract without competition

        As fun as that might be, the truth is far less sensational. I have an amazing team of people who have worked incredibly hard despite being in lockdown, having kids at home, family members in hospital and dying to be able to deliver this service for the NHS. I’ve seen people on the absolute brink of what they can cope with and still carried on working due to the massive demands of the service.

        There were no favours or loopholes, we won the contract because over the 12 years prior to 2019 we had been building and deploying an integrated diagnostic healthcare exchange for the NHS that was exactly what was needed by the government. We were doing this well before there were pandemics and £million contracts because we believe fast, accurate, secure reporting of diagnostic results benefits patients and improves outcomes.

        I couldn’t be any more proud of my team for the contribution they have made, and I have absolutely no concern about the value for money we have achieved for the NHS.

        Mat Barrow, X-Lab CEO

        1. gobaskof

          Re: £8m contract without competition

          "we won the contract because over the 12 years prior to 2019 we had been building and deploying an integrated diagnostic healthcare exchange for the NHS" - I totally understand writing sole supplier contracts for continuity/trust especially when one is in a rush. The problem is a government had handed a ridiculous number of contracts to their mates during this pandemic that all of these decisions need to be under scrutiny.

          Fortunately, I am sure a future Inquiry will handle proper scrutiny. In the mean time the El Reg commentards may use humour as a way to express frustrations about this state of affairs. There is no need to get wound up.

          1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
            Joke

            Re: £8m contract without competition

            "In the mean time the El Reg commentards may use humour as a way to express frustrations about this state of affairs."

            New old sayings...

            You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps

            You don't have to be a chum to get a government contract, but it helps

            1. Tom 7 Silver badge

              Re: £8m contract without competition

              Seem the new head of the BBC has donated a mere £400k to the tories over time. Nothing to see there click pop.

            2. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
              Alert

              Re: £8m contract without competition

              "HAPPY FAMILIES"

              "THE FUN GAME FOR CHRISTMAS 2020!"

              Christmas Issue of "Private Eye" (#1539), Page 10.

              The first couple is no stranger here -

              "Mrs Harding the Hopeless Case and

              Mr Harding the Hopeless Case's Husband"

              ...

              RULES OF THE GAME:

              There aren't any, any more...

        2. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

          Re: £8m contract without competition

          Nice one, Mat Barrow, X-Lab CEO. Thanks for the info and missing intel.

          I'm sure you can perfectly understand the greater concern though, that no contest government contracts can raise and the value for money that they can all too easily not provide ... other than the public sector funding enrichment of dodgy private principals.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: £8m contract without competition

          Knowing Mat, I wouldn't discount the pole though :-)

          (MattP)

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: £8m contract without competition

            @AC

            Just got a call through from a lady from the USA. She was trying to get hold of Mat Barrow. Says she does IT training, Sales and Marketing. And a dab hand with poles, and can show him a few tricks if he is interested. Also started to say something like "Boris is a total sh..." but the line was bad and broke up before she could finish

        4. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: £8m contract without competition

          Watch this space. [Sir] Mat Barrow. More Covid-19 honours to come...

          And a give it a bit more time and he'll be elevated to the Lords and hobnobbing with peers like Lord Sugar and Baronesses Martha Lane-Fox and Dido Harding.

        5. Dunstan Vavasour
          Thumb Up

          X-Lab - Never heard of them

          I've worked on-and-off with NHS Digital for several years, and have never heard X-Lab mentioned.

          I don't think there can be a higher recommendation than that. Keep up the good work and see if you can achieve the ultimate accolade of becoming "boring".

          1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
          2. John 110
            Mushroom

            Re: X-Lab - Never heard of them

            If you'd ever had anything to do with Diagnostic Laboratory IT, you'd be aware that X-Lab produce NpeX, a method of assuring rapid electronic transmission of test results between labs that do tests and labs that send tests away to be done. It's only boring because a) you're ignorant, and b) it doesn't have a flashing blue light on the top :)

            PS There's more to the NHS than just Wards and Clinics, other people make a valuable contribution too (I did when I worked there...)

  2. gobaskof

    "However, X-Lab had cut its prices from 18 pence a message to 0.1 "

    Why has the price dropped by a factor of almost 200? Was the NHS previously paying 20,000% of market rate (who signed off on that contract)? Is it due to economies of scale? Either the article is pretty short on details of exactly what, messages are subject to this charge, or I am dense to understand the article. Possibly the latter.

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Getting down with the sickness.

      Either the article is pretty short on details of exactly what, messages are subject to this charge, or I am dense to understand the article. Possibly the latter.

      We're IT types. The NHS isn't. And 18p a message is cheaper than a stamp, so represents considerable savings, and excellent value for money to for the NHS! What exactly is a 'message' you say? Well, that would be a result for a specific test. 18p for red cell count, 18p for white and there's probably some other stuff in most people's blood. I'm just interested in the alchohol content! <hic> Now, moving on to the next question. Yes, £8m is excellent value for money, and don't you know there's a war on!

      But such is politics. I'm also a bit suprised. System set up to do data exchange can't exchange data and can't simply have a new test code & results field added. I mean it's not like it's being asked to do something complicated, like add PCT cycle counts, or explain why that creates false positives, it's just a pass/fail. Or why the system can't scale. Ok, so it's got a few more suppliers, and probably customers, like say the BBC so they can keep their 'case' count updated in (su)real time.. I mean they're vital in keeping the public informed*.

      But we're IT types, so sadly used to seeing stuff like this happening.

      * Ah, BBC headline writers..

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-55550748

      "Dad had to choose between breathing and drinking fluids"

      Ok, so the story was slightly more involved, although still normal for hospitals. Trying to do both at the same time is something most of us learn not to do at an early age.

      1. gobaskof

        Re: Getting down with the sickness.

        "We're IT types. The NHS isn't." - Hmmm, reading about NHS and X-labs made me somehow think that NHSX was involved, they are IT types. Seems reading, rather than understanding is my problem. Oh well.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Getting down with the sickness.

          Seems reading, rather than understanding is my problem. Oh well.

          I think it's just normal for PFI-style deals. And why it's important to win the bids. Once the customer is locked into the contract, it's hard to get out of it. Even if you can demonstrate non-performance per any contract, it's still hugely expensive and disruptive to re-tender and implement any replacement system. Especially mid-crisis.

          1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

            Re: Getting down with the sickness.

            ...it's still hugely expensive and disruptive to re-tender and implement any replacement system.

            Elsewhere in The Register today...

            https://www.theregister.com/2021/01/06/scottish_council_awards_unit4_475m/

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Getting down with the sickness.

        "Dad had to choose between breathing and drinking fluids"

        I'm no medic, but surely if the situation was that dire, he could have been put on a drip to handle the fluid intake.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Getting down with the sickness.

          I'm no medic, but surely if the situation was that dire, he could have been put on a drip to handle the fluid intake.

          I've been in that kind of situation, and it's not fun. Being masked isn't comfortable, and nor is ending up with a dry mouth/throat. Luckily nurses in the HDU were great, and there were squeezy bottles of water & ice to suck on. Worst part was being nil by mouth when the food trolley came round with bacon sarnies and coffee.. Give me coffee, or give me DEATH! They wouldn't even hook up an IV caffeine bag either.. spoilsports. Once I was off nil by mouth, I did manage to convince a nurse to stick a bag of grapes in the freezer. Yey for the NHS!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Shock horror...

    Company which build software used by 70% of labs contracted to add 45 more...

    Is the preferred approach to do a 3 month competition with the conventional due diligence? Or would the 'media' lambast the missed opportunity to use the data to track the virus...

  4. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    A Most Inconvenient Question for UKGBNI Governments to Answer

    Regarding the unseemly great rush and government push to vaccinate, has big pharma been promised immunity from all manner of criminal and/or public and/or private prosecutions should innocent patients or ignorant test guinea pigs suffer life-changing and/or life threatening and even fatal reactions to what are pimped and pumped as essential life-saving jabs?

    It appear to be so, and causing concern elsewhere, and it is surely unlikely to be fake news ........ https://www.rt.com/news/511635-peru-pfizer-legal-immunity/

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: A Most Inconvenient Question for UKGBNI Governments to Answer

      Kind of. See-

      https://www.jurist.org/news/2020/12/uk-government-grants-pfizer-civil-legal-indemnity-for-covid-19-vaccine/

      ...The new regulation, Regulation 345 of the Human Medicines Regulations of 2012, prohibits civil liability against Pfizer or healthcare professionals distributing the vaccine for any damage that arises through use of the vaccine “in accordance” with its recommended use.

      and-

      https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-to-add-covid-19-to-vaccine-damage-payments-scheme

      The VDPS is a safety net to help ease the burden on individuals who have in extremely rare circumstances experienced harm due to receiving a government-recommended vaccine. It is not a compensation scheme. Rather, it provides a one-off, tax-free lump sum – currently £120,000 – for those suffering a severe disability as a result of a vaccine against a disease listed under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act.

      Which is perhaps not the best safety net given severe disability is obviously rather life changing, and £120k may not go far. Presumably other help is still available, ie benefits like PIP to help live with that disability. But Regulation 345 of the HMR also has this clause-

      (4)This regulation does not apply in relation to liability under section 2 (liability for defective products) of the Consumer Protection Act 1987(a) or article 5 of the Consumer Protection (Northern Ireland) Order 1987(b)

      and only refers to civil claims, not criminal. But then there's also the contracts between HMG & Pfizer, which are commercially confidential. But it does look like Pfizer has immunised itself, despite it's vaccine being novel, and the first ever mRNA one to be unleashed on the public.. Which seems a tad risky, and there have already been possible adverse reactions, including some deaths. Which I guess in Covid score keeping style should mean any deaths within 28 days of being vaccinated should be counted as vaccine deaths. Personally I'd be opting for the Astra vaccine instead of Pfizers, but not sure if we'll be given the choice.

      It's an interesting dilemma.. Governments have decided Covid is a national emergency and done stuff like home detention to shield hospitals from being overwhelmed*. Then also decided that priority vaccinations should go to health service staff. So there's an obvious risk that any severe adverse reactions will show up in that population first, and thus a risk to the health services. Plus there are reports that healthcare staff are refusing the vaccine.

      Then I guess there'll be the prospect of test cases to see if indemnities are legal. After all, the law is meant to be the mechanism to right a wrong or harm.

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Re: A Most Inconvenient Question for UKGBNI Governments to Answer

        Thanks for that quite comprehensive informative reply, Jellied Eel, answering a Most Inconvenient Question. :-) Sometimes El Reg is even better than Google :-)

        And quite why anyone/anything would down vote it is a mystery surely answered relatively recently by Albert Einstein [RIP] ......... Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.

        One imagines though, with the recent significant change of recommended time between first initial and second booster injections of vaccine, there may be some difficulty in ensuring immunity is securely guaranteed according to Regulation 345 of the Human Medicines Regulations of 2012 .... The new regulation, Regulation 345 of the Human Medicines Regulations of 2012, prohibits civil liability against Pfizer or healthcare professionals distributing the vaccine for any damage that arises through use of the vaccine “in accordance” with its recommended use.

        I wonder who/what in government is in charge of clarifying that little gem for greater unwashed public consumption? ......... or as is the more common adopted practice of so many inept government wonks, avoiding answering the question.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: A Most Inconvenient Question for UKGBNI Governments to Answer

          I wonder who/what in government is in charge of clarifying that little gem for greater unwashed public consumption? ......... or as is the more common adopted practice of so many inept government wonks, avoiding answering the question.

          Ultimately I guess the Supreme courts of the UK. Luckily not the people here with opposable thumbs, who don't like facts. And I'm sure they'd be perfectly happy if they are unlucky enough to suffer a severe adverse reaction & discover they have little or no recourse. Unless they're also a Pfizer exec/shareholder.

          Again I think it's an interesting dilemma. Anti-vaxxers are already a problem given it's hard to get herd immunity if people refuse to be vaccinated. But Pfizer's vaccine is not a normal vaccine. Personally I think it would have been better to do some kind of limited indemnity, ie a cost+ deal where Pfizer gets paid, but a substantial part of the profit is put into an escrow account and released over time as the vaccine's demonstrably safe long-term. Or just effective. I guess the government would have some recourse, ie stopping vaccinations & cancelling contracts, but the long-term risks would be harder to assess, eg risks to pregnant women etc.

      2. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

        Re: A Most Inconvenient Question for UKGBNI Governments to Answer

        "and the first ever mRNA one to be unleashed on the public.. Which seems a tad risky, and there have already been possible adverse reactions, including some deaths."

        I'm aware of their being some adverse reactions (seemingly a very small number, and consistent with most vaccines).

        Can you substantiate the claim of "some deaths"? This being the internet, such statements tend to break out into the wild very easily, and should not be made lightly.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: A Most Inconvenient Question for UKGBNI Governments to Answer

          Can you substantiate the claim of "some deaths"? This being the internet, such statements tend to break out into the wild very easily, and should not be made lightly.

          Sure. Any death within 28 days of a positive Covid test is a Covid death. Therefore by the same principle, any deaths within 28 days of one (or both) vaccine doses should be considered a vaccine death. Otherwise, here's one from only the guardians of truth!

          https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/portuguese-nurse-dies-vaccine/

          What's True

          Sonia Azevedo died on Jan. 1, 2021, two days after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination.

          See? The vaccine kills even faster than Covid. You don't even have to wait out 28 days to count it. Then, there's more-

          What's False

          However, an autopsy concluded that her death was not due to the vaccine. Further, Associated Press previously reported that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "found no serious side effects in the tens of thousands enrolled in studies" for either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine

          which is typical Snope's house style, ie a false equivalence. The FDA stuff is irrelevant given the trials were mostly among healthy volunteers, and trials are imperfect anyway. And whether it's possible to draw that conclusion, or it's the same problem with Covid death counts.. Especially as in the US, they've stopped performing routing autopsies on 'Covid' deaths anyway so actual cause of death is unknown. Then Snopes also wibbles about not knowing if it was a Pfizer or a Moderna. It doesn't fact check very hard-

          https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-vaccine-moderna/eu-regulator-approves-moderna-vaccine-as-fears-grow-over-virus-variants-idUKKBN29B11N

          Ok, so there's a possibility that Portugal approved and sourced the Moderna vaccine before today's announcement that the EU's approved it.

          And there's also-

          https://zeenews.india.com/world/covid-19-norway-probing-death-of-two-people-who-received-pfizers-vaccine-2334426.html

          Norway has launched a probe into the death of two nursing home residents who died after receiving COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

          ...Medical Director of Norwegian Medicines Agency Steiner Madsen said in a statement, ''We have to assess whether the vaccine is the cause of death, or if it is a coincidence that it happened soon after vaccination.''

          Which is a bit more curious simply because of the lack of results from 'reliable sources' when searching on the NMA's Madsen quote. Which is a shame because he makes an excellent point. Elderly people die. It could be a coincidence that they died shortly after recieving a vaccine, or a test. And there are other possible factors, eg here in the sunny UK-

          https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/world-55556714

          The number of patients in UK hospitals with Covid is now above 30,000 - and 1,041 new deaths are reported, the highest daily figure since April

          Just as well there's around 170,000 total beds in the UK, possibly more with the 'Nightingales'. I wonder if Hancock knows how many of those beds are actually occupied with flu patients, it being Winter and all.. But then we're lucky that seasonal flu & norovirus have gone on hols to make room for 'Covid' cases, or the NHS could be in real trouble.. Which was actually a serious point behind winter wargaming, ie the combination of a severe flu season, plus normal winter excess mortality, plus Covid probably could/will overwhelm the NHS..

  5. Val Halla

    Does it work?

    If not, will the full contract value be returned?

    1. macjules Silver badge

      Re: Does it work?

      Haha. No.

      1. MatBarrowXLab

        Re: Does it work?

        Yes it does work very well, ~40million times and counting.

        We only get paid if the service works and the NHS withhold a chunk of the invoice as contingency against failures that are discovered later. The contract has a number of pretty aggressive clawback clauses, including unrestricted penalties, so that the NHS and taxpayers (of which I'm one) are protected. Thankfully, our focus on patient safety and quality of service mean that none of these penalty clauses have been needed since the service launched.

        MB

      2. John 110

        Re: Does it work?

        If you mean it doesn't work, then you're an idiot. If you didn't then carry on...

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