Coronavirus has spread rapidly through our interconnected, globalised world with unprecedented speed. But as we fight back, we are fortunate to be able to call upon a force that previous generations did not have access to: the power of new, advanced technology.
Since the start of this pandemic, our innovators, scientists, engineers and manufacturers have harnessed new technologies to tackle COVID-19 with urgency and agility. Four months after the first case was confirmed in Britain, it’s become increasingly clear that technology is no longer just an enabler of our political, economic and social response – it’s become the central organising tenet of everything we do as a nation to defeat coronavirus.
Across the country, tech-driven businesses large and small have stepped up imaginatively to play a crucial role in our coronavirus fightback. Industrial giants such as Lockheed Martin have supported “The Big Print” initiative by repurposing their advanced manufacturing capability to rapidly produce face shields using 3D printers for our NHS and other frontline workers. University College London and the University College London Hospital teamed up with Formula One engineers from Mercedes in Northampton to rapidly reverse engineer a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure device that enables patients to recover without the need for invasive ventilation. The usual production process was reduced from several years to a matter of days, and it took fewer than 100 hours from the initial planning meeting to the production of the first prototype. COVID-19 has compelled us to press the fast forward button on tech innovation and implementation, cutting through red tape to focus on what matters: saving lives.
Beyond the rapid manufacturing of medical devices and personal protective equipment, British tech companies are also leading the way in the global application of artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data sets to source potential treatments and vaccines. Oxford-based AI-powered drug discovery company Exscientia is screening over 15,000 clinically safe molecules to see if any existing drugs can be repurposed to protect us against COVID-19. Similarly, BenevolentAI have been working around the clock using advanced AI to identify approved drugs which could potentially treat COVID-19. Their findings were picked up by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and clinical trials have now commenced on the most promising drugs. The incredible speed at which this work moved from laboratory computer to patient bedside demonstrates the far-reaching potential of AI and Big Data to treat disease.
On the frontline, our NHS doctors and nurses have been helped by innovative apps such as Medic Bleep, a WhatsApp-style tool for clinicians that has improved the speed of communication allowing them to spend more time focusing on patient care. In London, our NHS hospitals have benefited from the COVID-19 Digital Staff Bank app to help fill urgent vacancies and maintain safe staffing levels throughout peak periods. Armed with Big Data, wearable devices, apps and AI, these tech innovations have turbocharged our fight against the pandemic and paved the way for a Health Service where the rapid deployment of innovative technology becomes the new normal.
Today the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution releases a new report showcasing some of the tech community’s inspirational work in the fightback against coronavirus. Backed by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock, leading voices from Government, industry, academia, local government and beyond provide key insights into the pioneering work that has been at the heart of our national response to COVID-19. The report also calls for continued investment in tech for our NHS, giving our doctors, nurses and other frontline staff the latest and best tools. Anything less and our Health Service will fall behind and patients will suffer.
Last year I successfully introduced a Bill in Parliament to ban the use of fax machines and pagers in the NHS – and such outdated technology is now being outlawed. But the COVID-19 outbreak has taught us that we must go even further and faster as the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates. We must keep up the pace of tech adoption and reform within the NHS as new products come to market.
In response to the most serious public health emergency for generations, digital and advanced technologies have proven themselves to be lifesavers, protecting millions of people around the globe. As we plan for a future after coronavirus, we must not let this good work go to waste or this momentum slip away. Instead, we must harness this renewed focus on the tech agenda to ensure that our NHS and other key public services continue to invest in innovation, making technology the bedrock of our Health Service for years to come.
Alan Mak MP is Founding Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Their new report is available online: www.4IRAPPG.com/COVID19