NHSX and NHS Digital to merge into NHS England – the view so far

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has confirmed plans for NHSX and NHS Digital to be merged into NHS England and Improvement (NHSE/I), as part of a wider shake up to reform digital transformation and workforce planning in the NHS.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to bring the two organisations under the umbrella of NHSE/I was based on the recommendations of a review by Laura Wade-Gery, the Non-Executive Director at NHS England and Chair of NHS Digital.

Wade-Gery took over the role of chair from previous incumbent Noel Gordon in 2020 and the idea of NHSX and NHSE/I working more closely together was floated earlier this year, although no plans were confirmed at the time.

NHS England and NHS Improvement’s appointment of Dr Timothy Ferris as its Director of Transformation, to lead the organisation’s new Transformation Directorate, was also believed to have been made with more collaboration in mind.

DHSC has stated that it hopes the move to unite NHSX and NHS Digital’s expertise ‘under one roof for the first time’ will ‘build on the huge progress made on digital transformation during the pandemic’ and drive an ‘ambitious agenda of digital transformation and progress’.

As part of the reshuffle, current Interim CEO of NHS Digital, Simon Bolton, is expected to move into a CIO role at NHS England.

Under the UK Government’s proposed plans, Health Education England, which is the body responsible for NHS workforce education and training, is also set to become part of NHSE/I.

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, said: “To ensure our record NHS investment makes a lasting impact, I am bringing workforce planning and digital transformation into the heart of the NHS.

“These reforms will support our recovery from COVID-19 and help us tackle waiting lists to give patients excellent care in years to come.

“I would like to pay tribute to all our colleagues at Health Education England, NHS Digital and NHSX for the enormous progress they have made, which we will continue to drive forward with their help.”

DHSC is also expected to create a Digital Delivery Unit, which will reside within the existing NHS Delivery Unit and use data to help the government to ‘better understand’ the challenges and obstacles to recovering NHS services.

There has been plenty of reaction and comment on the planned DHSC reforms so far, with Matthew Gould, NHSX Chief Executive, stating: “For the past two years, NHSX has been making the case for digital transformation in the NHS, and for digital to be integrated within the NHS rather than kept in its own silo. This reorganisation is the culmination of that campaign. It is an excellent step – a more coherent structure that will allow us to accelerate digital transformation across health and care.”

Simon Bolton, Interim CEO of NHS Digital, added: “From the vaccine roll out to identifying and protecting the most vulnerable to coronavirus, I am extremely proud of everything we have achieved during this challenging period, in close collaboration with our partners, which has made a real and valuable impact for the public.

“Now we will build on this progress as one organisation, accelerating the digitally enabled transformation of the NHS and improving it, both for its staff and the people it serves at the time they are most in need.”

In a separate post on Twitter, Simon also commented, “This is good news. One lesson from COVID has been the when we get policy, operations and tech aligned we move fast and effectively. Creating a single, coherent centre that can provide consistent leadership on digital for the NHS is foundational.”

Public reactions on social media differed in their views, with some commentators welcoming the news, while others shared concerns about the existing workforce.

One person commented: “Just remember there are human beings within these organisations. Many of whom have worked full tilt for two years now to support the pandemic response.”

While another added: “Organisational clarity and simplicity will surely allow the NHS to accelerate digital transformation as one coherent team.”

Understandably, some commentators were also already thinking about the future and what the announcements will lead to, with questions remaining over what the shake up will mean for existing plans and programmes, such as those around GP data collection and data governance.

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