Tories dash to sell off NHS

by Daphne Liddle

THE GOVERNMENT last week accelerated its undeclared plans to sell off the NHS before the general election in May by signing two massive privatisation agreements — both described as the biggest ever NHS privatisation sell-offs so far.

The deals were rushed through without any announcements or public consultations and some of the companies involved already have dubious records of poor patient care standards.

It will be difficult for an incoming Government in May to reverse them, especially since at least one would fall under the aegis of the hated Transatlantic Trade and Industry Partnership.

The first of these major privatisations is a £780 million deal agreed by the NHS Supply Chain and involving 11 private companies — which have strong links to the Tory party — to tackle an NHS backlog in eye, heart, joint and other operations along with scans, X-rays and other diagnostic tests.

Many of these procedures will be done in mobile units in hospital car parks similar to those used for breast screening programmes.

Health unions and activists fighting to protect the NHS point out that the backlogs in these treatments have been created by the Government keeping the NHS starved of cash.

Now suddenly the cash is available to be paid to these private firms, some of which already have a very poor record on patient care.

Vanguard was the sole winner of a contract worth up to £160 million to help NHS trusts undertake surgical procedures in mobile operating theatres. It is facing legal action over a series of eye operations carried out in 2014 at Musgrove Park Hospital in Somerset.

A confidential NHS report into Vanguard said the operations appeared “rushed” and surgeons were allowed to continue even after patients reported serious complications. The hospital terminated its contract with Vanguard after just four days as a result of the problems.

A second firm, Circle, is in line to share up to £240 million for providing imaging services, such as scans and X-rays. It will also provide services within operating theatres. Circle is the firm which pulled out of running Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire — the first private firm to manage an NHS hospital — following the publication of a damning Care Quality Commission (CQC) report into the quality of care patients were receiving at Hinchingbrooke.

A third company involved in the deal, Care UK, was criticised by the CQC for the quality of care at two nursing homes it runs in Suffolk.

Paul Evans of the NHS Support Federation, which tracks outsourcing of NHS services and campaigns against privatisation, said: “How can the public have trust in companies that have so recently been the subject of such damning criticism?

“We already have many examples where patients have suffered because of the way that health firms are providing care to the NHS. It is time to step away from healthcare through the market.”

She added: “This case clearly demonstrates the Government is putting its own ideological commitment to the market and to the vested interests of the private health care industry ahead of patients’ needs. No wonder the future of the NHS is the top issue in the election.”

The second giant privatisation involves Staffordshire Health Trust where, according to a memorandum leaked by local Labour MP Kate Godfrey, all cancer services are to be sold off for £700 million together with all end-of-life services in a deal totalling £1.2 billion. She said: “These are commercially confidential, secret agreements that will rebuild NHS services for hundreds of thousands of people, but are for the eyes of the bidding companies only. Not only is this the first billion- pound NHS privatisation, it is the first time that it has been deemed acceptable to put care designed to meet the needs of our most vulnerable patients on sale.

“Uniquely for a privatisation on anything of this scale, there has been no public consultation, simply a series of weak ‘engagement’ events led by paid ‘patients’ champions’.

“There are lots of firsts here. It is the first time that cancer or end-of-life care has been contracted out. The first use of the prime provider model on anything like this scale. The first privatisation without formal consultation. The first huge international NHS contract that could fall under TTIP. Transfer these services out of the NHS now, and we may never get them back. The leading bidders are all US private healthcare companies, some of them implicated in failures of care elsewhere. One is Optum, the US brand facing allegations over the American hospice-packing scandal.”