Ransomware attacks against public and private sector bodies in the UK have surged in recent years, according to a new report by the government’s cyber security agency.

The National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) 2021 annual review found that there were three times as many ransomware attacks - where hackers extort organisations for the return of stolen data - in the first quarter of 2021 than in the whole of 2019.

The report also warned that the high levels of home working prompted by the CV19 pandemic meant criminals were increasingly able to use “off-the-shelf” malware to exploit unpatched software and weaknesses in VPNs to access organisations’ sensitive data.

The threat posed to public and private bodies by ransomware attacks is not going away any time soon. Organisations can find themselves - out of nowhere - thrust into the complex world of managing a business-threatening ransom attack.

Criminals now typically use a two-pronged approach - first gaining access to the organisation’s systems and stealing a significant amount of data, only then to encrypt the data and demand payment for the decryption key. Often attackers also threaten to publish the stolen data online or on the dark web, as a way of adding more pressure to make a payment.

The potential business-critical impact of these attacks is a very significant risk to organisations financially and reputationally, and serves as a stark reminder of the need for organisations to get cyber-ready and have rehearsed response and recovery plans in place for when an attack inevitably happens.

Overall, more than a third (39%) of UK businesses reported a data breach or a cyber-attack in the 12 months leading up to March 2021, according to the NCSC report. It said that 20 per cent of all incidents in 2021 related to the UK health sector and vaccine research - a trend often driven by hostile state-backed actors.

Between January 2020 and July 2021, Protective DNS - software that defends against malware, ransomware, phishing attacks, viruses and spyware - blocked NHS, healthcare and vaccine providers from accessing malicious domains 4.4 billion times.

Failure to defend against cyber-attacks can cause serious disruption, the NCSC warned. In May, a successful attack on the Irish Health Service Executive (IHSE) meant tens of thousands of patients temporarily lost access to medical treatment. In total, the IHSE estimates that the incident cost Irish taxpayers £442m.

The NCSC report comes as data from insurance group Marsh suggested the rising number of ransomware attacks was also driving an increase in cyber insurance pricing.

The overwhelming majority of companies renewing cyber insurance had experienced an increase in premiums in the first half of 2021, and in the first quarter, pricing rose on average by 29%. The rise in prices was largely due to new controls in place, as well as a high volume of claims in the past three years.

Marsh said there was also an increase in the number of companies reviewing their cyber risk controls and carrying out cyber risk assessments to try and better understand their exposure to cyber-attacks.