January 26, 2024 - 1:00pm

Tony Blair is back in the news, once again calling for sweeping reforms to Britain’s public services. This time, the former prime minister — in a joint report with his one-time rival William Hague — is calling for a revolution in how we keep our medical records or, as he puts it in his article in the Times yesterday, a “new approach to using healthcare data to support breakthroughs in medicine”.

The essential argument is seductively simple. Britain is good at biotechnology and we have a vast source of information — the NHS — if only we could prise open its vast treasure chest of data. Coupled with developments in technology like AI, Britain could turbocharge both new medical breakthroughs and economic growth — a win-win for everyone. 

In their joint report, published by the Tony Blair Institute, the former party leaders call on the NHS to set up a company to sell access to anonymised records. Such a scheme could bring “massive benefits to research, public health and patient treatment,” they argue. Patients should also be given access to their own medical records through a cloud-based “personal health account”.

All of this might be wise, sensible, ingenious or wrong depending on your view. As ever with Blair, the idea is carried along on a current of liberal prophecy: the future is coming, and we must get with it or be left behind. Once upon a time, the future was Europe; now it is tech.

The first thing to say about this — and it may be uncomfortable for some — is that Blair might well be right. Anyone who uses the NHS knows it is in a desperate state and needs to find ways to get more money into the system. At the same time, though, anyone who lives in Britain knows the country itself is in a pretty desperate state and needs to find new ways to grow the economy. This might be one answer.

But the second thing which must be said is that Blair cannot be seen as a neutral voice on this question. He is the owner and executive chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, whose principal donor is the world’s fourth-richest man, Larry Ellison. Now, Ellison is the owner of Oracle, the giant Silicon Valley firm which is trying to become the world’s most important online medical data company using its cloud technology. 

When Blair says selling NHS data makes sense for Britain, he might be right, but the fact that his company receives hundreds of millions of pounds in donations from a tech plutocrat trying to build the Amazon of online medical records should at least be acknowledged. Then, we can judge the merits of his ideas for ourselves.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.