NHS privatisation: how much of the health service has Virgin Care taken over?
The fact Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Care has been awarded over 400 NHS contracts worth £2bn in the last seven years may have made the front page of today’s Guardian but the figures are nothing new.
As i revealed in January, the company won £1bn of those contracts in the previous 12 months alone – one third of the £3.1bn of health services privatised in 2017 despite a government pledge to reduce the proportion of care provided by private companies. The number of contracts Virgin has taken over from the NHS has been widely reported since then and the £2bn figure has been pointed out in recent months by campaigners such as NHS for Sale, Keep Our NHS Public and Chartist Magazine. Nevertheless, people will once again ask questions about whether the NHS is being privatised on the quiet.
The health service awards thousands of contracts every year and private firms, like Virgin Care, are entitled to bid for many of them. Analysis of the Department of Health’s published accounts by the King’s Fund shows that the share of spending by NHS commissioners on the private sector was 7.7 per cent of the budget in 2016/17. This has increased slightly from 7.3 per cent in 2014/15, although changes in data definitions mean this is not strictly a like-for-like comparison, the health think-tank says. Total spending by NHS commissioners on non-NHS organisations (including the voluntary sector and local authorities) was 10.9 per cent, up from 10.7 per cent in 2015/16.
The King’s Fund also says that due to changes in definitions, it is difficult to precisely measure changes in the amount spent on private or non-NHS organisations over time. “However, a trend of small incremental rises in spending on private provision is consistent with longer-term gradual increases over the past 15 years.” At those rates, though, more than 50 per cent of the NHS would be in private ownership in around 100 years’ time. Whatever the increase, any outsourcing of NHS contracts to private hands is anathema to many. One can understand why when a GP practice taken over by Virgin Care was placed in special measures after going from an official rating of “outstanding” to “inadequate” in less than two years – despite increased funding.
The Sutherland Lodge practice in Chelmsford, Essex, was taken over by the private provider in July 2016 after the previous partners handed back their contracts following £400,000 funding cuts to their contract with NHS England. Prior to Virgin Care taking over, the practice was among the 4 per cent rated outstanding across England. But an inspection report published on 14 May by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) reveals that Sutherland Lodge is now rated inadequate overall. The report is based on an inspection carried out in December 2017 – just 18 months after Virgin Care took over the practice. Inspectors gave the company six months to turn the practice back around. This will not stop Virgin Care and companies like it carrying on bidding for more NHS work.
The group’s companies not only include Virgin Care Services Ltd and Virgin Care Ltd, but also Virgin Care Provider Services Ltd, Virgin Care Corporate Services Ltd and several limited liability partnerships (LLPs), each of whom are responsible for various NHS contracts. NHS contracts that Virgin Care has recently taken responsibility for include a 10-year £500m contract in Bath and North East Somerset to deliver health and care services, a £250m contract in Essex delivering public health services over the next seven years and a £65m contract in West Lancashire delivering urgent and community care for adults.
Current trends suggest the private sector will win a further £10bn of NHS clinical contracts over the next three years and Virgin Care will undoubtedly be at the forefront. As for Sir Richard he says his “long standing interest in healthcare” dates back to when he started the charity the Student Advisory Centre in the early 1970s. He said he has “maintained a keen interest in improving healthcare services” ever since. “Like everyone in the UK, I am hugely proud of the NHS and our social care system and the amazing work front line staff do every day to support all of our care needs, however, I have always thought there were a number of things that could be improved.”
A spokesman for Virgin Care said: “For more than 10 years we have been supporting the NHS and local authorities to deliver health and care services; we have saved the taxpayer millions and delivered the plans asked for by the NHS – 93% of people rating our services say they’d recommend them. We have not made a profit to date, investing all money in delivering and improving the services we run and supporting a free, efficient NHS.”