Inside Dominic Cummings’s coronavirus meeting with big tech

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Chief Number 10 advisor Dominic Cummings asked technology CEO and business leaders to share skills and talent with the government in order to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in a Downing Street meeting on Wednesday evening.

About 40 technology leaders attended the meeting, according to a person who was inside the room. Attendees included representatives of big technology multinationals including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Palantir, alongside smaller British companies such as food delivery service Deliveroo and Babylon Health, a company that provides remote medical consultations via an app.

The meeting was chaired by Cummings, and also attended by UK chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, and the NHS chief executive Simon Stevens. Prime minister Boris Johnson made a fleeting appearance but did not stay for the full length of the meeting.

According to the source, at the start of the two-hour-long meeting, Cummings outlined a series of technology needs the UK needs to address in order to confront the Covid-19 emergency. These included, for instance, avoiding overwhelming the NHS 111 medical helpline with calls, and therefore creating an alternative way for worried citizens to self-triage their symptoms via a digital app. Another key problem was the NHS’s lack of a “single source of truth” dataset – in other words the siloing and fragmentation of data across various parts of the healthcare system.

The source said that the topic of coronavirus-related online disinformation was not discussed at any significant length. That contrasts with previous press reports, and with the government’s own statement about the meeting.

Following his introductory speech, Cummings asked each technology firm to lay out what it could bring to the table in terms of helping the government grapple with the spread of Covid-19. Cummings was interested in accessing specific skills within companies, including data architecture, data science, and app development.

The source says that some companies, including Deliveroo and Uber, offered to share data about their usage patterns with the government, in order to aid contact-tracking – but that Cummings did not seem taken with the idea. Deliveroo declined to comment. Uber declined to comment on the specific matter; in a statement, the company reasserted its resolve to “ensure the safety of our employees and everyone on the Uber platform”.

At the end of the meeting, all participants were asked to write down what resources they could commit to the effort.

Their commitments would be assessed and followed up on by NHSX, a unit of the UK’s National Health Service focused on fostering digital innovation, which will now be coordinating technology responses across the whole system.

The source says that NHSX is already working with an AI company called Faculty (previously known as ASI Data Science) to build a series of tools aimed at helping decision-makers and at improving communication with the public. Faculty has previously designed technology for the Home Office aimed at reducing the spread of Daesh’s online propaganda. Neither the NHS nor Faculty replied to requests for comment by the time of publication.

The source says that during the meeting, the attending government officials suggested that the UK will not implement strong restrictions on citizens’ movements – of the kind seen in China and Italy – and is instead aiming at “flattening the curve” of the contagion, staggering the number of cases over time in order to avoid overwhelming the hospitals.

That seems to chime with the strategy outlined two days ago by the head of the government-owned Behavioural Insights Team, David Halpern, who said the government would be “cocooning” vulnerable patients while the general population attains “herd immunity.” The Department for Health and Social care did not respond to WIRED’s questions about whether aiming for “herd immunity” is official government policy.

When asked about the meeting, a Number 10 spokesperson said that tech companies had been invited to discuss what they could to to help model and track the disease and the impact of government interventions.

“The potential extent, scope and impact of disinformation linked to coronavirus was also discussed, and how we can all play a role in tackling this,” the spokesperson added.

Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi

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