Covid-19: Information vacuum persists in wake of cyberattack

Ninety days after ransomeware hit HSE, lack of data feed for media and public disturbing

The pandemic still casts a long shadow over society and the health service, and yet data on the progress of the disease comes out only in dribs and drabs.

The pandemic still casts a long shadow over society and the health service, and yet data on the progress of the disease comes out only in dribs and drabs.

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It is now three months since a ransomware attack on the Health Service Executive’s IT systems wreaked havoc across the health service.

This unscrupulous cybercrime caused massive disruption to health systems, grievously impacted on staff who were already exhausted from dealing with Covid-19 and incurred costs that will probably run into hundreds of millions of euro.

The road out of this catastrophe has been long and slow and, even now, HSE staff say they are far from enjoying normal access to computers and emails.

For the most part, the media have shown acceptance and understanding of the HSE’s plight, even as disruption continued from week to week. This may be because few Irish journalists have any kind of expertise in this kind of global cybercrime.

But after three months, the dearth of information flowing from the health service is worrying. Most urgently, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to cast a long shadow over society and the health service, and yet data on the progress of the disease comes out only in dribs and drabs.

Truncated reports

The HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) used to publish a weekly report on: the epidemiology of Covid-19; outbreaks of the disease; cases among children; cases among healthcare workers; and deaths involving Covid-19.

None of these has appeared since the cyberattack occurred in mid-May. The HPSC does publish daily reports outlining trends in the preceding two weeks, but these are truncated compared to their pre-cyberattack equivalents. For instance, they lack information on hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths.

Remarkably, the health system is unable to provide a figure each day for the number of Covid-19 deaths. These are updated once a week on the Government’s Covid-19 data hub. Many of the fields in this resource, such as those dealing with county figures, breakdowns by age and sex, and testing, have not been updated since May.

But it’s not just about the previously published data not being available. With mass vaccination and the rise of the Delta variant, we are in a new phase of the pandemic. We need new information and it isn’t being provided regularly.

Knowledge deficit

Are people in hospital due to Covid-19 or have they acquired it there? How many vaccinated people are testing positive? How many are in hospital? Is the Delta variant affecting one age group more than others?

There are so many questions that require answering so journalists, academics, politicians and simply interested citizens can properly analyse what is going on.

In Leinster House, the flow of answers to parliamentary questions from the HSE is still extremely slow, according to party sources, with the cyberattack regularly blamed for delays.

Worrying, it appears some of the information is being collected and is available to policymakers but isn’t being shared in a consistent manner with the wider public. Briefings by the National Public Health Emergency Team used to provide journalists at least with the opportunity to ask questions and elicit information, but these happen more rarely now. Which isn’t a problem at this stage of the pandemic – so long as data is being released.

Some officials have developed the habit of releasing information on social media channels owned by US tech giants. Intermittent tweets, however, are no substitute for a regular flow of relevant data to citizens and taxpayers.

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