Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

UK National Health Service holds talks with Facebook to deploy Portal devices in care homes

Updated: Facebook is one of many companies contributing to healthcare services fighting COVID-19.

Facebook donates video-conference devices to UK health service to ease patients' lockdown
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Facebook and the UK's National Health Service (NHS) are in talks to arrange the distribution and deployment of Portal devices to care homes now closed to visitors due to COVID-19.

In order to slow down the spread of the respiratory illness and protect those who are considered most vulnerable, the United Kingdom is currently under a form of lockdown and outsiders not allowed to visit their loved ones in these facilities. 

According to Wired, to cater for elderly residents who are now denied visitors, Facebook and the NHS are discussing the potential deployment of "thousands" of Portal devices to these facilities. 

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Making its debut in 2018, Portal is a video-calling device that resembles a digital photo frame with a built-in camera, microphone, and speaker. Portals can be used to manage video calls made via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, whether or not both parties have a Portal device. 

Sources speaking to the publication said a pilot scheme will be launched that involves 2,000 Portal devices being sent to care homes in Surrey and another location, potentially including Manchester, Newcastle, or Leeds, all of which are in the north of England. 

If successful, the pilot could then be expanded to other locations with discounts available to the NHS for purchasing additional Portals. 

Facebook's contribution may be a valuable one in maintaining connections between care home residents in the UK and their loved ones forced to isolated due to the novel coronavirus, in spite of privacy concerns that are constantly raised with the company for its handling of user information.  

Update 16.13 GMT: An NHS spokesperson told ZDNet that 2,050 devices are being offered "for free to hospitals, care homes and other settings including hospices, in-patient learning disability, and autism units." 50 devices have already been delivered to sites in Surrey with Manchester, Newcastle and London and other areas to follow. Accenture is assisting with the pilot project.

"We are thrilled to see solutions being offered to Adult Social Care providers that can support residents in care homes to communicate with their loved ones remotely during this COVID-19 outbreak, and are very much looking forward to hearing how these Facebook Portal devices are used and what impact they have during this difficult time," commented Vic Rayner, Executive Director of the National Care Forum and Care Provider Alliance. "This is a fantastic starting point and with other systems offering similar solutions we are sure that communications between care recipients and their loved ones will continue to be a priority that is supported."

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The company is part of an army of technology giants lending a hand in different ways. Other projects and pledges underway include:

  • IBM: IBM staff with 3D printers are volunteering their time and skills to create visors for medical teams, some of which have already been shipped to University Hospital Southampton. The company has also opened up access to supercomputers for COVID-19 research.
  • Tesla: Tesla engineers have come up with two prototype designs for ventilators that can be made out of vehicle parts.
  • Apple: Apple is sourcing masks and is manufacturing face shields for hospital staff on the front line.
  • Amazon: Amazon Web Services (AWS) has rolled out the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative with an investment of $20 million to enhance diagnostics research and progression. The company is also prioritizing the delivery of crucial equipment.
  • Microsoft: Microsoft has teamed up with Adaptive Biotechnologies to work on COVID-19 immune response research.
  • Google: Google is matching donations, up to $5 million, made to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization (WHO). 
  • HP: HP's 3D Printing team and partner network are producing ventilator valves, breathing filters, and face mask clasps for hospitals. 

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