Sunday 14 May 2017 08.00 BSTFirst published on Saturday 13 May 2017 18.22 BST
The cyber-attack that disrupted NHS systems and forced operations to be cancelled throughout the UK on Saturday has become a bitterly contested election issue, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats blaming the crisis on the government’s failure to upgrade hospital computers.
A Cobra emergency ministerial meeting held on Saturday afternoon heard that 48 NHS organisations – a fifth of the total – were caught up in the attack, which spread to 99 countries.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, wrote to the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, saying that concerns had been repeatedly raised about the NHS’s outdated computers.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, expressed anger that the government had not renewed a multimillion-pound security package.
“In 2014, there was a one-year renewal of the protection system on the NHS systems which was not renewed and so systems are now not upgraded and not protected,” Corbyn said. “As a result, we’ve got this dreadful situation.”
The Lib Dems demanded an inquiry into why the Conservatives had cut cybersecurity support a year ago when it axed the £5.5m deal with Microsoft.
“We need to get to the bottom of why the government thought cyber-attacks were not a risk, when a combination of warnings and plain common sense should have told ministers that there is a growing and dangerous threat to our cybersecurity,” said Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Brian Paddick.
“It is worrying that in Amber Rudd we have a home secretary in the digital age more suited to the era of analogue,” he said.
“This is not the first time she has looked lost in cyberspace. The government likes to look tough, but this is an example of where it has left Britain defenceless.”
But speaking in Northern Ireland, the prime minister sought to emphasise the global nature of the attack.
“This cyber-attack that has taken place has affected organisations here in the UK but in many countries around the world as well,” Theresa May said.
“Europol has said that it is unprecedented in terms of the scale. The National Cyber Security Centre is working with all organisations here in the UK that have been affected and that’s very important.”
Rudd said that all but six of the NHS trust IT systems that had been hit in the attack were able to function again and dismissed claims that the government was not taking cybersecurity seriously enough.
“This government has long recognised the growing threat of cyber-attack from those who wish to do us harm and has invested significantly to bolster our cyber-defences,” she said.
The Ministry of Defence played down concerns on Saturday that its four Trident-missile carrying submarines are vulnerable to the kind of cyber-attack that created havoc with the NHS.
While the four submarines use Microsoft Windows software which left the NHS exposed, the nuclear submarines have been designed for almost complete isolation when at sea.
The Windows software was installed on the submarines to save money rather than meet the cost of a tailored system.
An MoD spokesperson said: “While we don’t comment on the specific systems used by our submarines, for reasons of security, we have absolute confidence in our independent nuclear deterrent.”
In the wake of Friday’s ransomware attacks, NHS staff painted a picture of chaos at some trusts, as failed computer systems brought electronic communication to a standstill.
Barts, the biggest trust in the NHS, was one of those hit the hardest. On Saturday ambulances were being directed away from the three A&E units it runs at Newham, Whipps Cross and the Royal London hospital. The trust has also had to postpone an undisclosed number of non-urgent operations due this weekend, mainly hip and knee replacements.
Porters were having to take x-rays and CT scans by hand to doctors, resulting in some patients experiencing delays in their diagnosis.
The University Hospitals of the North Midlands trust, which runs hospitals in Stoke and Stafford, said the cyber-attack had resulted in only “minimal impact on clinical services”, but was nonetheless asking patients not to come to its A&E units unless absolutely necessary.
The British Medical Association said some doctors had to “resort to pen and paper” instead of updating patient records digitally.
Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chairman, said: “This cyber-attack on NHS information systems is extremely worrying for patients and the doctors treating them. There have been reports of hospital doctors and GPs unable to access patients’ medical records, appointment booking systems and in some cases having to resort to pen and paper.”
The former NHS Digital chairman Kingsley Manning said a cyber-attack “was always going to happen”. Money earmarked for IT upgrades was sometimes diverted by NHS trusts because “it is very difficult to get individual trusts, even if you provide the money centrally, to actually use that money for this purpose”.
Jan Filochowski, who ran six trusts including Great Ormond Street children’s hospital in London, said: “Most of the NHS IT system is out of date. It’s been behind the curve in terms of investment in IT for years.
“But there’s a real problem in replacing it because the costs are enormous and it would involve major capital expenditure from the Treasury and that has been deeply constrained [in recent years] during the resource squeeze in the NHS.
“To give the NHS the modern IT system it so desperately needs would cost hundreds of millions, and probably billions, and it would take years to do, given the complexity involved.”
Cybersecurity experts say the attacks, launched through a virus called Wanna Decryptor, exploit a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows software that was first identified by the US National Security Agency, which built a specialist hacking tool to exploit it.
The tool was leaked on to the web earlier this year when hackers dumped a cache of NSA files. In March Microsoft issued a special patch to protect Windows users.
But only those who uploaded it were protected from the ransomware attack, in which hackers demanded payment in return for unlocking their victims’ computers.
A great deal has been written in recent years about the perils of automation. With predicted mass unemployment, declining wages, and increasing inequality, clearly we should all be afraid.
By now it’s no longer just the Silicon Valley trend watchers and technoprophets who are apprehensive. In a study that has already racked up several hundred citations, scholars at Oxford University have estimated that no less than 47% of all American jobs and 54% of those in Europe are at a high risk of being usurped by machines. And not in a hundred years or so, but in the next 20. “The only real difference between enthusiasts and skeptics is a time frame,” notes a New York University professor. “But a century from now, nobody will much care about how long it took, only what happened next.”
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I admit, we’ve heard it all before. Employees have been worrying about the rising tide of automation for 200 years now, and for 200 years employers have been assuring them that new jobs will naturally materialize to take their place. After all, if you look at the year 1800, some 74% of all Americans were farmers, whereas by 1900 this figure was down to 31%, and by 2000 to a mere 3%. Yet this hasn’t led to mass unemployment. In 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting that we’d all be working just 15-hour weeks by the year 2030. Yet, since the 1980s, work has only been taking up more of our time, bringing waves of burnouts and stress in its wake.
Meanwhile, the crux of the issue isn’t even being discussed. The real question we should be asking ourselves is: what actually constitutes “work” in this day and age?
What is “work” anyway?
In a 2013 survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance,” and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission, while another poll among 230,000 employees in 142 countries showed that only 13% of workers actually like their job. A recent poll among Brits revealed that as many as 37% think they have a job that is utterly useless.
They have, what anthropologist David Graeber refers to as, “bullshit jobs”. On paper, these jobs sound fantastic. And yet there are scores of successful professionals with imposing LinkedIn profiles and impressive salaries who nevertheless go home every evening grumbling that their work serves no purpose.
Let’s get one thing clear though: I’m not talking about the sanitation workers, the teachers, and the nurses of the world. If these people were to go on strike, we’d have an instant state of emergency on our hands. No, I’m talking about the growing armies of consultants, bankers, tax advisors, managers, and others who earn their money in strategic trans-sector peer-to-peer meetings to brainstorm the value-add on co-creation in the network society. Or something to that effect.
So, will there still be enough jobs for everyone a few decades from now? Anybody who fears mass unemployment underestimates capitalism’s extraordinary ability to generate new bullshit jobs. If we want to really reap the rewards of the huge technological advances made in recent decades (and of the advancing robots), then we need to radically rethink our definition of “work.”
The paradox of progress
It starts with an age-old question: what is the meaning of life? Most people would say the meaning of life is to make the world a little more beautiful, or nicer, or more interesting. But how? These days, our main answer to that is: through work.
Our definition of work, however, is incredibly narrow. Only the work that generates money is allowed to count toward GDP. Little wonder, then, that we have organized education around feeding as many people as possible in bite-size flexible parcels into the employment establishment. Yet what happens when a growing proportion of people deemed successful by the measure of our knowledge economy say their work is pointless?
That’s one of the biggest taboos of our times. Our whole system of finding meaning could dissolve like a puff of smoke.
The irony is that technological progress is only exacerbating this crisis. Historically, society has been able to afford more bullshit jobs precisely because our robots kept getting better. As our farms and factories grew more efficient, they accounted for a shrinking share of our economy. And the more productive agriculture and manufacturing became, the fewer people they employed. Call it the paradox of progress: the richer we become, the more room we have to waste our time. It’s like Brad Pitt says in Fight Club: too often, we’re “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”
The time has come to stop sidestepping the debate and home in on the real issue: what would our economy look like if we were to radically redefine the meaning of “work”? I firmly believe that a universal basic income is the most effective answer to the dilemma of advancing robotization. Not because robots will take over all the purposeful jobs, but because a basic income would give everybody the chance to do work that is meaningful.
I believe in a future where the value of your work is not determined by the size of your paycheck, but by the amount of happiness you spread and the amount of meaning you give. I believe in a future where the point of education is not to prepare you for another useless job, but for a life well lived. I believe in a future where “jobs are for robots and life is for people.”
And if basic income sounds Utopian to you, then I’d like to remind you that every milestone of civilization – from the end of slavery to democracy to equal rights for men and women – was once a Utopian fantasy too. Or, as Oscar Wilde wrote long ago: “Progress is the realization of Utopias.”