The cyber-attack exposed NHS vulnerabilities but it also proved the resilience of its staff

Whiteboards, flipcharts and posters greeted staff when they turned up for work: Please don't switch on your PCs.

The cyber attack may have exposed vulnerabilities in the NHS but it also showed the resilience of its staff, argues Jon Hibbs
The cyber attack may have exposed vulnerabilities in the NHS but it also showed the resilience of its staff, argues Jon Hibbs

One immediate impact of the global cyber-attack that hit the NHS was a return to pen and paper.

Without either email or intranet, we had to relearn old ways of talking to each other: a salutary reminder of how dependent we are on electronic tools.

Porters doubled as runners to ferry messages, samples and records between wards, labs and clinics.

Meetings, phone calls and texting enjoyed a revival, though the alternative technology of What'sApp found new converts too.

Daily team huddles came into their own.

And by default our corporate channel for reaching both staff and patients was the website, supplemented by the promotional power of social media.

Prompt action by our IT team contained the virus, but then began the laborious business of securing the servers and sweeping thousands of PCs.

It is a tribute to the dedication and commitment of health professionals that they got on with the day job, and uplifting to see how admin and clerical colleagues volunteered to help where they could.

Camera crews were more courteous, but we had so many at different hospital entrances one day that we put up our top doc for interviews to feed the beast.

Jon Hibbs, director of communications and engagement at Barts Health NHS Trust

Some (unnamed) medics gave vent to frustration in the media, though none of the coverage compared to the effrontery of the reporter who faked a neck injury to get into A&E at The Royal London, was ejected by security but then came back a few hours later claiming a gammy leg instead.

Camera crews were more courteous, but we had so many at different hospital entrances one day that we put up our top doc for interviews to feed the beast. Barts Health seems to have been mentioned (or our hospitals pictured) in almost every story.

Throughout, patients continued to receive treatment, and services remained safe.

There is no sign that medical records were compromised, although we don't hold patient data on our servers.

Our clinical systems are hosted by Cerner, whose top security data centres are used by hospitals all over the world.

Patients should have no cause for concern on this front.

Neither is there evidence that the perpetrators wanted to steal patient data. Unlike the virus that hit us in January, which was erroneously reported as ransomeware at the time (a misattribution perpetrated by the British Medical Journal), this particular malware was extorting money.

But otherwise, it seems utterly pointless to cause so much unnecessary disruption for so little gain.

Clearly the episode exposed an NHS vulnerability.

We had just emerged from a computer failure (the cause of which is yet to be determined) that disabled eight of our several hundred disks.

Imaging and pathology teams had repaired their systems and recovered the backlog when WannaCry popped up to take it all down again.

Critics were quick to blame the ageing IT infrastructure, and inevitably investment has become a political football, which I cannot kick.

Yet I hope it is not too naive to hope that the NHS might see its reputation strengthened – if only for the extraordinary resilience of its people and their commitment to patients.

Jon Hibbs is the director of communications and engagement at Barts Health NHS Trust


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