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Privatisation of the NHS looms

By Ian Quinn

When historians look back in future years at how the NHS was privatised, this week could prove to be highly significant.

Two seismic announcements signalled that after years of bubbling away as an issue below the surface, the moves by private firms to gain a real foothold in primary care have well and truly begun.

The most eye-catching, of course, was the return to the fold of Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson, as the news broke of his successful acquisition of a majority stake in Assura.

Having shelved his original plans to launch a general practice empire less than two years ago, Sir Richard is now suddenly back with a vengeance, as the biggest owner of Darzi centre contracts and a key player in polysystems. Moreover, as a recently highly vocal critic of Government ‘over-spending', he is a man in a prime position to help save the NHS money, by taking on multi-million pound contracts on its behalf at what will surely soon become 'Virgin Centres'.

This week could well prove to be a tipping point, the point at which private firms who have kept their heads mainly beneath the parapet in recent months make clear their ambitions to dominate the future of primary care services. Also on Wednesday, another leading player in polyclinics, Care UK, revealed it had agreed a £281m takeover by City investors, who were prepared to pay a substantial premium to the company's shareholders for a slice of what they clearly see as a future of rich pickings from the embattled NHS.

Pulse revealed recently that in Greater Manchester, GPs are already being told to refer all patients in core outpatient categories to polyclinics run by the company, or risk possible measures from the GMC. No wonder investors can see profits ahead.

Suddenly the BMA's campaign against privatisation becomes real as never before, and themarches and public meetings lined up for the next few weeks against NHS cuts take on even more significance.

While the economic downturn may initially have hampered private firms like Virgin and Assura, who struggled to see how enough money could be made from the sector, the desperation of NHS trusts to save money by shifting patients from hospital into primary care means that the economic crisis is now playing right into their hands.

With GPs hugely under-resourced to tackle the scale of the proposed shift both in outpatients and A&E services, it seems certain trusts will turn en masse to the private sector, regardless of which party wins the election.

Health secretary Andy Burnham has said the NHS is his preferred provider, but behind the scenes trusts across the country are drawing up plans to act on still yet to be updated DH guidance which urges them to open up the market to new providers.

If the Tories win the election, it is a sure bet that privatisation will be ramped up, rather than curtailed, whatever David Cameron says about his love for the NHS.

Faced by the cross-party agreement that the health service needs to save a fortune by outsourcing hospital services en masse, the chances of the BMA, or even the most organised of anti-privatisation campaigns, succeeding at keeping these firms at bay, are suddenly looking more and more slim.

By Ian Quinn