Cyber worm attack propels health funding to center of British election campaign

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The most disruptive cyber attack in the seven-decade history of Britain’s national health service propelled a debate over state hospital funding to the center of the election campaign on Monday.

The “WannaCry” worm global attack which locks computers and demands a $300 ransom sowed chaos on Friday through the computer systems of some National Health Service (NHS) hospitals which canceled operations and reduced non-emergency care.

The NHS which provides free medical care for all is a source of pride for Britons and opinion polls show it is the issue voters care most about, followed by Brexit and the economy, ahead of the June 8 national election.

Television news broadcasts led on the impact on the hospitals, while the opposition Labour Party said Prime Minister Theresa May’s response the crisis had been poor and that her Conservative government had failed to invest enough in the health service.

“The government’s response has been chaotic, to be frank,” Labour’s health spokesman Jon Ashworth said. “They’ve complacently dismissed warnings which experts, we now understand, have made in recent weeks.

“The truth is, if you’re going to cut infrastructure budgets and if you’re not going to allow the NHS to invest in upgrading its IT, then you are going to leave hospitals wide open to this sort of attack,” he added.

Britain spends about 145 billion pounds ($187 billion) a year on health, or about a fifth of its state budget, and spending is projected to rise in real terms though the British media has repeatedly reported of a looming health crisis due to an ageing population.

The NHS, which was showcased in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, employs more than 1.5 million people, making it one of the world’s biggest employers alongside the U.S. Department of Defence, Walmart and the People’s Liberation Army of China.

CYBER ELECTION CRISIS?

It was unclear why NHS computers were not patched with Microsoft updates to close the vulnerability that allowed the worm to spread across its networks.

Security Minister Ben Wallace said the government used to contract for computer services across the entire NHS but that in 2007 – when the Labour Party was in power – that was stopped and left to the individual trusts.

Cyber security experts worked through the weekend alongside the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), part of the GCHQ spy agency, to patch computer systems but some hospitals still cautioned patients on Monday to only seek treatment for life-threatening emergencies.

Britain’s National Crime Agency, which tackles serious and organized crime, said it had not seen a second round of cyber attacks on Monday as experts had feared.

“We haven’t seen a second spike in #WannaCry #ransomware attacks, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be one,” the NCA, said on Twitter.

In a snap election campaign which May has dominated so far, the debate over the cyber attack on the NHS forced her onto the defensive though it was not immediately clear what impact, if any, there would be on her popularity.

Britain’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, warned in 2014 that some NHS organizations had “limited understanding of the threat and they do not yet understand what would represent an appropriate level of threat protection”.

Asked if the government had ignored warnings over the NHS being at risk from cyber attack, May told Sky News: “No. It was clear (that) warnings were given to hospital trusts.”

She said the attack had not been focused on the NHS but was part of a wide international issue, and said the government had invested 2 billion pounds in cyber security.

“We take cyber security seriously,” she said.

However, a poll on Monday found three-quarters of Britons thought the NHS was in a bad condition and more than 50 percent blamed the Conservatives for its current woes.

Government ministers were due to hold an emergency response meeting later on Monday to deal with the crisis. A spokesman for May said the annual information technology budget in the NHS was 4.2 billion pounds and that an extra 50 million pounds had been allocated for updating cyber security.

  • Reuters
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