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Cyber-attack on IT systems can cause delays in hospital services; restoration efforts are underway

DUBLIN: The Health Service Executive has confirmed that the cyber-attack has hit all hospital IT systems and that the effects of the attack will have an impact on health services for the next week. However, a senior HSE official said steps were being taken to restore the IT systems.

The HSE decided yesterday morning to shut down all IT systems in order to protect the whole infrastructure. Higher officials have been working since yesterday to assess the impact of the “significant ransomware attack” and to identify what systems are functioning.

Senior officials said the cyber-attack affected hospitals differently, with some being forced to cancel outpatient appointments and elective procedures, while others were not hit as hard. “The important thing for us is to not cancel things if we don’t need to. We are prioritising urgent and time-dependent work,” said Anne O’Connor, HSE chief operations officer.

In several hospitals, X-ray appointments and radiology services were cancelled. Radiation treatment centres at St Luke’s, Beaumont and St James’s Hospital have stopped their services. Outpatient visits at Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital were also cancelled.

Meanwhile, the vaccination program continued despite the cyber-attack. The online booking portal for COVID-19 vaccine appointments also was operational. The HSE also confirmed that some appointments, such as chemotherapy and dialysis, will continue as usual.

HSE will not pay ransom demanded by hackers

Paul Reid, HSE chief executive, said the cyber-attack has hit all hospital IT systems, causing significant data loss. Mr. Reid said that officials are currently trying to determine what extent of data could have been compromised in the attack.

The HSE CEO says the standard approach adopted by criminal groups behind such cyber-attacks was a “double extortion” attempt. They are withholding hacked data and threatening to publish it online if the ransom is not paid, he said.

However, Mr. Reid has said on Friday that HSE would not pay the ransom demanded by the cyber criminals. He said there have been cases where organisations have paid ransom to cyber criminals but the data has not been returned.

Mr. Reid said the HSE had secure back-ups of all the affected data from its IT systems. This will help to rebuild the whole infrastructure.

According to the HSE head, the attack is being dealt with at the highest level of the country’s intelligence forces, and they are currently looking at what systems can be brought back online in a safe manner.

NCSC support

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said in a statement that they are fully committed to supporting HSE in response to cyber-attack. They also said that “work will continue throughout the weekend with the focus on supporting the HSE’s recovery process in order to minimise disruption to services”. The security centre will be providing more updates as the investigation progresses.

The Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan said the NCSC was committing all of its resources to responding to the attack and was in touch with international partners and private contractors.

Offline manual process

HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor said that hospitals had returned to using pen and paper to process blood and other lab test results.

“A really big problem here relates to diagnostics, so our whole imaging system has been affected by this. We have no access to previous scans, no access to previous blood results,” Ms. O’Connor said.

The HSE has warned that delays in hospital services can be expected as they attempt to move to offline manual processes. The HSE has informed members of the public that changes to appointments and services will be published on its website: https://www2.hse.ie/services/hospital-service-disruptions/hse-it-system-cyber-attack.html

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