The vaccination programme, Covid check-in system, case management system, contact tracing app . . . it’s been a busy lockdown for Deryck Mitchelson

Wearing a headset and surrounded by screens, Deryck Mitchelson looks a little like an air traffic controller. When it comes to landing projects, the digital director for Scotland’s NHS support services organisation has certainly had a lot on his radar.

Over the last 10 months, the pieces of work have been stacking up, much of it Covid-19 related. When I catch up with Mitchelson on Teams, he’s excited about the prospect of building a system to administer the vaccination programme for the coronavirus in Scotland.

It’s a high-profile piece of work, but since lockdown he has also worked on the largest ever Microsoft Office rollout in Scotland, issuing 200,000 user licences over the course of three weeks, when it should have taken nine months.

Add to that building a Covid-19 check-in system based on a QR code that you can scan when visiting a hospitality venue, and a virus case management system utilised by 3,500 contact tracers nationwide, as well as supplying regular data insights on virus trends that guide government policy, and contributing to the development of the Protect Scotland contact tracing app, and it’s fair to say a lot has been landing.

“It’s been a very busy time, but there’s lots of good things getting done, so it’s been good distractions, to be honest,” he tells me. “If you had asked me what I’d have been working on at the beginning of 2020, though, and given me the timescales for all of that, I think I might have queried that. 

“But overall I think we’ve been doing a good job during Covid of deploying things quickly, and which are absolutely bang on the money for our digital strategy.”

Mitchelson joined NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) two years ago and started on a process of re-engineering its digital plan. According to his analysis, which he shared at the Digital Scotland conference on December 1, there was a host of problems when it came to IT, including risk aversion, a complex landscape, little or no automation and poor governance.

Above all, there was minimal adoption of cloud-based services that could bring significant cost and management time savings. Much of NHS IT is legacy system-based (they still have mainframe computers), and so it required a lot of what Mitchelson describes as “feeding and watering”.

“I had in mind that if I got this right for NSS, it could help the NHS more widely, where many of the boards inevitably have their own approaches, and there is not much by way of standardisation. I thought if I could establish strong governance, and demonstrate why we should invest in public cloud services, and if I could push forward with the right cultures and approach, then we could change that.”

He added: “I mean, we shouldn’t be spending any money on data centres, we could use that money to invest in healthcare, so I targeted a 25 per cent cost reduction on data centre spend. My attitude was let’s automate as much as we can, making sure we don’t have to do patching; I prefer that the technical teams are spending their time on the high-value things. “I think patching and monitoring is better done by the software-as-a-service provider, so you’re managing and improving the service rather than worrying about the underlying infrastructure all the time. That absolutely echoes the digital strategy we have within the NHS as to how we should be doing things.”