The deal with 10 private healthcare firms for an undisclosed amount of taxpayer money comes with several NHS trusts declaring critical incidents as signs hospitals are becoming overwhelmed again increase. It will see hospitals able to use spare capacity in the private sector, while hospitals have been told to find extra beds. Private healthcare staff and facilities will be put on standby to support the NHS should Covid cause unsustainable levels of hospital admissions or staff absences.
Those patients who can be referred to private firms under the deal include some of those waiting for cancer surgery.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “NHS staff continue to go above and beyond to ensure people get the treatment they need this winter and our support for the NHS through this challenging period remains at full throttle.
“This agreement demonstrates the collaboration across our health care services to create an additional safeguard that ensures people can continue to get the care they need from our world-leading NHS, whenever they need it.
“I encourage everyone to keep doing their bit to look after themselves and their loved ones and, most importantly, for all those eligible, to get boosted now.”
NHS England had signed several contracts worth more than £2billion with private hospital firms during the first year of the Covid pandemic.
However, according to the Centre for Health and the Public Interest (CHPI), the companies delivered less than 0.1 percent of the country’s Covid care and took on fewer NHS patients than the year before.
The Health Service Journal (HSJ) has also reported between June and the end of September 2020, two-thirds of the private sector capacity block-purchased by the NHS went unused by the service.
Cat Hobbs, director of campaign group We Own It, said: “Decades of underfunding has stretched the NHS to its limit, and this is now being used as an excuse to hand out more private contracts by a Tory government ideologically committed to privatisation.
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“Not only does this open the door to further privatisation of our NHS, it’s also a huge waste of public money.
“By some estimates, in 2020 the NHS paid around £400 million per month for use of the capacity of private hospitals, but two-thirds of this capacity was completely unused because private healthcare facilities rely on contracting NHS doctors in their spare time.
“The Government needs to admit that this approach is failing patients and reinstate the NHS as a fully public service and fund it properly.”
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said the NHS is already working “beyond full stretch” so the new deal with private hospitals makes sense.
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But he warned the deal must not increase the existing severe staffing pressures for trusts.
Mr Hopson said: “The NHS is working beyond full stretch so it makes sense, when required, to draw on additional capacity from the independent sector.
“However the supply of staff is finite and it is important that this deal does not exacerbate existing severe staffing pressures for trusts.
“It should be seen alongside other steps to prepare for the impact of Omicron at a time when the NHS is also dealing with so many other pressures.
“The priority for trusts is to minimise delays and maintain the quality of care for NHS patients.
“This has required increased collaboration and support with partners including the independent sector exactly as we saw earlier in the pandemic.”