Sir Richard Branson’s health firm, Virgin Care, has won a £700m contract to deliver 200 types of NHS and social care services to more than 200,000 people in Bath and north-east Somerset.
The contract, which was approved on Thursday, has sparked new fears about private health firms expanding their role in the provision of publicly funded health services.
Virgin Care has been handed the contract by both Bath and North East Somerset NHS clinical commissioning group and Conservative-led Bath and North East Somerset council. It is worth £70m a year for seven years and the contract includes an option to extend it by another three years at the same price.
It means that from 1 April Virgin Care will become the prime provider of a wide range of care for adults and children. That will include everything from services for those with diabetes, dementia or who have suffered a stroke, as well as people with mental health conditions. It will also cover care of children with learning disabilities and frail, elderly people who are undergoing rehabilitation to enable them to go back to living at home safely after an operation.
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NHS campaigners warned that the history of previous privatisations of NHS services in other parts of England may mean the quality of care patients receive drops once Virgin takes over.
“This is obviously part of a big push by Virgin to dominate the supply of community health across England. The experience so far from NHS outsourcing is that companies struggle to deliver the level of service that patients need and make a profit,” said Paul Evans, co-ordinator of the NHS Support Federation, which monitors NHS contracts being awarded to firms such as Virgin.
“In too many instances outsourced healthcare has resulted in care being compromised to cuts costs. Patients need secure services that they can trust and rely on,” Evans added.
The collapse of the £725m UnitingCare contract in Cambridgeshire meant Virgin’s newly acquired contract would be the most lucrative ongoing deal for providing NHS care, he said.
Eleanor Jackson, a Labour member of Bath and North East Somerset council, told the Mirror she was “horrified” by the decision. “Make no mistake about it, what has happened here is the beginning of the privatisation of the NHS in this country. Woe betide you getting ill in this area if you are old, disabled or have learning difficulties in the next seven years. It is just a horrifying decision,” she said.
There are concerns that handing the work to Virgin Care will take important income away from the many local NHS, voluntary, charitable and housing bodies that currently provide some of the services. They include the Royal United hospitals Bath NHS foundation trust, Great Western hospitals NHS foundation trust and the Avon and Wiltshire mental health partnership NHS trust. Charities affected include Age UK’s Bath branch and the Alzheimer’s Society.
Virgin will also run the urgent care facility at Paulton community hospital, which is 12 miles from Bath, and subcontract a number of other services to other providers, including the provision of dementia and end of life care and a “hospital from home” service for recently discharged patients.
“I am pleased that we can now start the process of transferring services. Following extensive consultation with local people and a very rigorous procurement process, the CCG board is assured that Virgin Care is the right organisation to deliver the personalised and preventative care that local people have asked for,” said Dr Ian Orpen, the clinical chair of Bath and North East Somerset clinical commissioning group.
“We will be working closely with the council and our new partners, Virgin Care, over the coming months to ensure that services and staff are transferred across safely on 1 April 2017 and to minimise disruption to the care and support that people currently receive.”