Critical incident declared as cyber attack affects major London hospitals

4 June 2024, 21:44

Cyber attack at major London hospitals
Cyber attack at major London hospitals. Picture: PA

Trusts reported the incident has had a ‘major impact’ on the delivery of services, with blood transfusions particularly affected.

Major hospitals in London have declared a critical incident after a cyber attack led to operations being cancelled and patients being diverted elsewhere for care.

NHS officials said they were working with the National Cyber Security Centre after the attack on Synnovis, which provides pathology services to large hospitals and GP surgeries in the capital.

The company said the ransomware attack has affected all of its IT systems, which has impacted its pathology services.

Some procedures and operations have been cancelled or have been redirected to other NHS providers as hospital bosses continue to establish what work can be carried out safely.

Health service leaders said there has been a “significant impact” King’s College Hospital, Guy’s and St Thomas’ – including the Royal Brompton and the Evelina London Children’s Hospital – and GP services in south-east London.

A memo to staff said the “critical incident” has had a “major impact” on the delivery of services, with blood transfusions particularly affected.

Patients have described last-minute cancellations to operations and blood tests.

Oliver Dowson, 70, was prepared for an operation from 6am on June 3 at Royal Brompton when he was told by a surgeon at about 12.30pm that it would not be going ahead.

He told the PA news agency: “The staff on the ward didn’t seem to know what had happened, just that many patients were being told to go home and wait for a new date.

“I’ve been given a date for next Tuesday and am crossing my fingers – it’s not the first time that they have cancelled, they did it on May 28 too, but that was probably staff shortages in half-term week.”

Vanessa Welham, from Streatham in south-west London, said that her husband’s blood test at Gracefield Gardens health centre was cancelled on Monday evening and he was informed that local centres were not taking bookings for an “indefinite period of time”.

She told PA: “My husband received a text message last night advising his appointment this morning had been cancelled due to circumstances beyond their control, and that all major south London hospitals – King’s, St Thomas’, Guys, Evelina and Gracefield Gardens – are unable to take any bookings for an indefinite period of time.

“He went on to the Swift website and made a new appointment – the earliest available was June 17, but that’s probably questionable.”

A spokesman for NHS England London region said: “On Monday June 3 Synnovis, a provider of lab services, was the victim of a ransomware cyber attack.

“This is having a significant impact on the delivery of services at Guy’s and St Thomas’, King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trusts and primary care services in south-east London, and we apologise for the inconvenience this is causing to patients and their families.

“Emergency care continues to be available, so patients should access services in the normal way by dialling 999 in an emergency and otherwise using 111, and patients should continue to attend appointments unless they are told otherwise.

“We will continue to provide updates for local patients and the public about the impact on services and how they can continue to get the care they need.

“We are working urgently to fully understand the impact of the incident with the support of the government’s National Cyber Security Centre and our cyber operations team.”

Synnovis chief executive Mark Dollar confirmed the company had been victim of a ransomware cyberattack, adding: “This has affected all Synnovis IT systems, resulting in interruptions to many of our pathology services.

“It is still early days and we are trying to understand exactly what has happened. A taskforce of IT experts from Synnovis and the NHS is working to fully assess the impact this has had, and to take the appropriate action needed.

“Regrettably, this is affecting patients, with some activity already cancelled or redirected to other providers as urgent work is prioritised.

“We are incredibly sorry for the inconvenience and upset this is causing to patients, service users and anyone else affected. We are doing our best to minimise the impact and will stay in touch with local NHS services to keep people up to date with developments.

“We take cyber security very seriously at Synnovis and have invested heavily in ensuring our IT arrangements are as safe as they possibly can be. This is a harsh reminder that this sort of attack can happen to anyone at any time and that, dispiritingly, the individuals behind it have no scruples about who their actions might affect.

“The incident is being reported to law enforcement and the Information Commissioner, and we are working with the National Cyber Security Centre and the Cyber Operations Team.”

King’s College Hospital
King’s College Hospital in London is among the hospitals affected (Andy Hepburn/PA)

Senior health services sources have told the Health Service Journal (HSJ), that gaining access to pathology results could take “weeks, not days”.

Synnovis was formed from a partnership between SynLab UK and Ireland, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

In 2021, it was announced that SynLab would partner with the NHS to deliver pathology services at hospitals and GP services across south-east London.

As well as serving King’s and Guys’ and St Thomas’, the pathology service also caters for South London and Maudsley and Oxleas NHS Foundation Trusts and a number of GP practices, clinics and other community services across the boroughs of Southwark, Lambeth, Bromley, Bexley, Greenwich and Lewisham.

Pathology services help with the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and infections by analysing samples including blood and tissue.

Commenting on the attack, cyber security expert, Steve Sands, of BCS – the Chartered Institute for IT, said: “This incident reminds us that the ransomware threat is now an ever-present danger to critical institutions from schools to hospitals.

“Of course, the perpetrators have no conscience, and they will attack any organisation whose cyber defences are not sufficiently robust.

“We need to ensure that all public sector organisations have contingency plans in place to manage cyber attacks, that staff are regularly trained on risk and there is sufficient investment in software resilience.

“Whoever forms the next government needs to make sure the NHS has this resource and that it is spent correctly, to ensure that lives are not put at risk.”

Professor Awais Rashid, head of the Bristol Cyber Security Group at the University of Bristol, added: “Digital infrastructures on which critical services, such as those provided by the NHS, rely are often a complex combination of many different systems and third-party service providers. Hence, cyber-attacks can have significant and substantial cascading impacts as we are seeing in this unfolding situation where critical health services are being impacted.

“There are myriad intersections of complex technology stacks and software and service supply chains. Attackers are increasingly targeting these elements leading to wide ranging disruptions to key societal functions.

“We need ways to ensure that critical services such as healthcare continue to operate safely and reliably even when parts of the infrastructure are under attack or compromised.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Patient safety is our priority and the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and the National Cyber Security Centre are working together to investigate impacts from a cyber incident affecting a pathology provider.

“Support is being provided to the company and we are working with them to minimise the impact on services for a number of NHS organisations in south-east London.

By Press Association

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