How private firms already run frontline NHS services by stealth
More than 100 services across the NHS are run by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin – the people who bring you planes, trains and telly.
At the Urgent Care Centre at Croydon University Hospital in South London, a man with a black eye takes me up close to the sign.
“Look up there, love,” he says. He reads the letters out slowly, as if to a complete idiot: “N.H.S.”
It’s a busy Friday afternoon and the seats in the waiting room are filling up. Minor injuries and illnesses are treated right here in the clinic, while more serious cases get pushed through to A&E.
“It’s frontline NHS,” a man waiting for news of his injured son tells me. Except he is only half right.
The clinic is definitely frontline. But like more than 100 services across the NHS, Croydon UCC is run by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin – the people who bring you planes, trains and telly.
“I can’t believe what you are telling me,” says Sharon Byfield, 51, who is taking a break from her mother’s bedside.
Her mum has been in intensive care for three weeks following a massive heart attack.
She is now being treated by the NHS, but came in through the UCC, run by Virgin Care.
I asked Sharon and her husband Neil, 44, whether it mattered to them who was running the place.
“Of course,” Sharon says. “It’s about being straight with people. You should know who you’re being treated by.”
“They say they’re not privatising the NHS,” Neil says. “But then they clearly are. If Virgin’s running this place, it’s privatised, isn’t it?”
Apart from the Byfields, trying to persuade most people in Croydon they are actually being treated by Virgin is almost impossible.
“You think I’m stupid?” says a man with a broken arm. “I know what Virgin is. I’ve got it at home. This is NHS, mate.”
You can’t blame them. When Sir Richard Branson launches a new line of business he usually stages a series of PR stunts from hot air balloons to bearded Olympians.
You’d expect Virgin’s signature emblazoned across red wheelchairs. And where’s the advert where Branson strides about flanked by nurses?
Yet, inside Croydon UCC there is not a single trace of Virgin branding. Just, as the man says, the three letters “N.H.S.”.
The doctors and nurses are wearing NHS cards on NHS lanyards. The clinic says NHS clearly outside.
All I can turn up is a solitary leaflet on a wire rack entitled “Croydon Urgent Care Centre”, which says in tiny italics, “run by Assura Wandle LLP”.
In March 2010, Virgin Group bought a majority share in the Assura Group Ltd and set up Assura Medical as a company in its own right – changing the name to Virgin Care Ltd in March 2012.
Its website lists its values as caring, “outcome driven” and – classic Branson – “fun”, not something generally associated with A&E.
On the run-up to the bank holiday weekend, Croydon UCC was full of people sitting quietly with their pain or worry.
A teenage boy was crying in a wheelchair. Elderly people watched rolling news on a screen above the door.
The scruffy UCC was packed, but I didn’t find a single person that didn’t believe they were being treated by the NHS.
In fact, the Government’s health reforms have already handed £7billion in contracts to private firms such as Virgin, private equity-owned Care UK, Serco and Circle.
In late 2012, a further £20billion “bonanza” for private firms was predicted by corporate finance adviser Catalyst.
Virgin Care’s interests inside the NHS are astonishingly diverse – sexual health services, children’s services, radiology departments, diagnostic and urgent care centres and even entire GP practices.
In 2012, it won a £100million-a-year deal to run a whole host of services in Surrey, including community hospitals.
Last month it began a £132million deal to run children’s services for Devon County Council – including mental health, school nursing, health visits and care for the disabled.
Earlier this month it announced a contract worth £6.6million to run healthcare inside HMP Bullingdon in Oxfordshire.
Now it has even expressed an interest in South London Healthcare – the first hospital trust to be put up for tender.
But why is Virgin’s presence so low-key? Backdoor privatisation of the NHS via Tory reforms is certainly at odds with the anti-establishment Branson brand.
Yet in the current climate, he knows that being part of the NHS landgrab is far more lucrative than trying to flog records.
For our part, we might not mind the hippy capitalist providing our broadband, but that hardly makes him Nye Bevan.
Virgin Care says it has now treated over three million patients and that it delivers “a better deal for the taxpayer”.
A spokesman added that “as we are providing NHS services, NHS brand guidelines require us to ensure that the NHS is the primary logo”.
Section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act, passed in April, has now opened up the NHS like a car boot sale.
Campaigners say newly privatised services are being run at a loss while corporates hoover up the rest of the contracts.
In two years’ time, the odds are they will be making a profit. Do we really expect these companies to run the NHS for the good of their health?
Section 75 now makes it compulsory for services to be put out to tender.
So how will the NHS fight against the slick bid machines of Branson and friends?
As one NHS staffer said to me yesterday, “We don’t have a marketing department. And, if we create one, the money will come straight from frontline services.”
On the eve of its 65th birthday, the NHS of the Olympics Opening Ceremony is lying like roadkill waiting for the vultures.
Remember all those airbrushed posters of David Cameron promising the NHS was safe in his hands? That frontline services would not be touched?
Instead they are fragmenting in private hands. And nobody is noticing.
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