How tech defined the biggest stories of 2021

Digital and data once again had a starring role in supporting – and, occasionally, hampering – the government’s work this year. Sam Trendall looks back
Photo: David Humphreys/Alamy Stock Photo

By Sam Trendall

31 Dec 2021

Considering many of us spent its entire first quarter confined to our homes, 2021 feels like a year in which quite a bit happened. 

Two years ago it would have seemed scarcely imaginable that, in a year whose first day marked the end of the EU exit transition period, Brexit would be reduced to a sideshow.

But, while coronavirus has continued to dominate the headlines, there have been plenty of other big stories that have shaped the year. And these events have, in turn, often been significantly shaped by the use of technology and data.


Last year, after a false start of several months during which the government made an aborted attempt to build its own software, the UK finally launched a contact-tracing app – built on Apple and Google technology – in late September 2020. This was some time after many other countries had already done so.

After a false start of several months during which the government made an aborted attempt to build its own software, the UK finally launched a contact-tracing app

But the app made up for lost time this year – particularly in the late spring and early summer, during which the number of contact alerts increased rapidly. At the peak of the so-called ‘pingdemic’, almost 700,000 people across England and Wales in a single week were informed by the app that they had been exposed to the virus and needed to isolate. Meanwhile, there was a two-month period during which venues across the country recorded a collective total of at least 10 million check-ins via the app each week.

But, even near the height of the app’s usage, the government estimated that only about a third of those who had downloaded the program “had the technology partially or fully enabled on their phone” – and even this figure included those that had turned off contact tracing.

Following the removal of all restrictions in July, the number of people disabling or deleting the app seemed to increase, with both venue check-ins and contact alerts falling to less then 150,000 each week.

In August, senior officials stated that “it is not possible to make a reliable and consistent calculation of the number of people with the app enabled at any one time”.

The government line is that it continues to “to encourage use of the NHS Covid-19 app, which is an important public health tool helping to break the chains of transmission of the virus”.

But testing and vaccination have become much more important than contact-tracing in supporting the pandemic response.

Vaccine passports

At the start of 2021, the vaccine rollout had delivered barely a million doses – or “jabs into arms”, as the prime minister seems fond of describing them.

One year on, and that number is nearing 130 million, including almost 50 million citizens that have received their first two doses and, at the time of writing, more than 20 million and counting that have also been given a booster shot.

Alongside the rapid deployment of immunisations, status certification platforms – or vaccine passports – have become an important tool in reopening societies around the world and enabling overseas travel to resume.

Since the spring, the NHS Covid Pass has been available to citizens of England and Wales via the NHS app, where it can be accessed digitally or downloaded for print or offline display. The platform offers a domestic version, which events and venues can choose to set as a condition of entry. The pass was widely used by large events in the late summer – and, as we moved into ‘plan B’ measures in early December, seems set to become an increasingly common feature of daily life.

The travel pass, meanwhile, is now recognised throughout the European Union, as well as in more than 20 other countries and territories – including New Zealand, Turkey, and Morocco – that have made similar reciprocity arrangements with the EU Digital Covid Certificate.

The agreement means that the NHS vaccine-status document can be automatically recognised by scanners at border stations, as well as in hospitality venues and events. 

Is remote working working?

The introduction of plan B came with a call from the prime minister for workers to perform their duties from home, where possible. 

The advice from Westminster echoed that which had already been issued in Holyrood and Stormont, while the Welsh Government is working on a national strategy to support far greater home working in the future.

But, despite such widespread support, the issue of remote working has become increasingly vexed as the year has gone on. This has not been due to problems with technology, however – concerns have instead been cultural and economic.

Despite such widespread support, the issue of remote working has become increasingly vexed as the year has gone on

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have both opined that returning to the office would be beneficial for the careers of workers in all sectors, and have encouraged people to do so. But some of their colleagues have taken a more critical tone – particularly when it comes to civil servants; Iain Duncan Smith said that London weighting should not apply to the salaries of officials that work largely remotely, while Oliver Dowden said government workers should “get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”.

Such comments have been met with anger and opposition from unions.

In the days before the PM announced the return to working-from-home advice, the PCS called on the government to lead the way with its own staff, and encourage them to work remotely, to help stem the spread of the Omicron variant.

“Chief operating officers must be told that all staff should work from home where possible – which we know the bulk of staff can,” said general secretary Mark Serwotka, in a letter to civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm. 

A troubling legacy

The WannaCry ransomware attack that hit the NHS in 2017 was seen by many as a sobering moment when the potential cost of using outdated technology became clear. In the weeks after the breach, the widespread use across the health service of platforms as old as Windows XP attracted a great deal of criticism.

The last couple of years have demonstrated that the cost of legacy kit lies not only in an increased security risk – but is also evident in purely financial terms.

Pretty clearly too, in the case of HM Revenue and Customs which in 2020 endured an extra £53.2m in costs that stemmed from the need to patch up legacy systems – equating to 80% of all the additional costs incurred by the department as a result of the pandemic response.

The tax agency was the biggest recipient of a £600m funding commitment made in the one-year spending round in November 2020; alongside £268m for HMRC, there was £232m for the Home Office, £64m for the Ministry of Justice, and £40m for the Department for Education.

One year later, and the money pledged to addressing legacy IT in the three-year spending review conducted in 2021 demonstrated that the issue poses as great a challenge as ever.

Some £2.6bn across government is to be spent over the next three years on updating old kit and mitigating other cybersecurity risks

Some £2.6bn across government is to be spent over the next three years on updating old kit and mitigating other cybersecurity risks, with HMRC receiving £750m to increase its tech resilience and diversify its procurement landscape by working with more smaller providers.

A cloudy outlook

During the summer and early autumn of 2020, the Crown Commercial Service agreed memoranda of understanding with six major cloud providers: IBM; Oracle; HPE; Google; Microsoft; and UKCloud.

The tech firms agreed to offer price discounts and other benefits to all public sector entities by, effectively, treating them as a single customer.

Amazon Web Services may have been the seventh and last firm to sign an MoU, but the government’s agreement with the IT hosting arm of the online retailer has had a much larger impact than all the rest put together.

In the first few months of the deal, government departments signed contracts with AWS worth more than £300m. Some renegotiated existing contracts signed just weeks before.

The likes of the Home Office (£120m), HMRC (£94m), DWP (£57m), and MoJ (£24m) have all received upfront discounts of 18% on the cost of the vendor’s hosting services, in return for committing to a three-year engagement with AWS.

More deals across the public sector have followed since – perhaps most notably supporting the work of the NHS Test and Trace scheme – while spending through the other six MoU arrangements has been paltry in comparison.

The cost benefits of the widespread use of Amazon are easy to argue, but critics – and competitors – often air concerns that AWS has, essentially, become the state’s hard drive. The depth and breadth of departments’ engagement with the tech firm means it would, now, certainly be a challenge for government to reboot the relationship. 

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology

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