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Virgin plans to lead GP care across country

By Ian Quinn

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin empire has plans to co-ordinate GP services across the country as private firms use the financial crisis to gain a firm grip on the NHS.

Virgin became the leading private provider of Darzi centres – with 15 in total – and joint owner of 30 GP companies after its acquisition of Assura Medical Ltd last week.

A Virgin board member told Pulse the company, now a corporate partner of more than 1,500 GPs, wants to run polysystems involving thousands of GPs to undercut hospitals and provide cheaper primary care services.

In the same week, City investors bankrolled a £281m takeover of Care UK, which afterwards told Pulse it was planning to double the size of its operation, again to take advantage of the shift of services from secondary care.

Richard Burrell, chief executive of Assura and a member of the new Virgin Healthcare board, said the company's network of GP-led health centres had already begun to play a key role in restructuring services.

‘You can call them polysystems or federations, but what GPs need is help in that corporate structure and Virgin is a company with the money and the experience to do it,' he said.

‘The NHS is under huge financial pressure and it makes very little sense to have hospitals where patients can't park, when these services could be provided by companies like us closer to their homes for less.'

Care UK, the biggest provider of independent sector treatment centres, which also runs a network of GP-led health centres, polyclinics and out-of-hours services, won backing from private equity group Bridgepoint. Dr Mark Hunt, the company's head of healthcare, said it would now be able to dramatically ramp up its activities: ‘Europe has 20% of services run by the private sector and we've got 3%, so something is clearly out of kilter. Our plans fit perfectly with what the NHS is trying to do.'

The rise of private firms has alarmed those who back the BMA's campaign to stop further privatisation – and Pulse's manifesto demand to put the brakes on private provision.

Virgin's stake is now far bigger than its original gradual rollout of surgeries envisaged and confidence among private providers is higher than in any other industry sector, according to corporate bank Santander. Dr Mike Betterton, a GP in Cleveland, said: ‘During the Darzi centre consultation, local practices produced a patient leaflet Alan Johnson regarded as "scurrilous" because it said the proposals would eventually force doctors to work for big companies like Tesco or Virgin. We were told at the time it "bordered on hysteria".'

Virgin: plans to coordinate GP services across the country Virgin: plans to coordinate GP services across the country