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Virgin poised to swipe raft of Darzi centres

By Ian Quinn

Richard's Branson's Virgin Healthcare is preparing to make a dramatic return to primary care with a deal which overnight would make it the biggest provider of Darzi centres in the country, according to reports circulating in the City.

Speculation is rife after Assura, one of the largest private primary care providers, issued a statement revealing it was in talks with a potential buyer for its healthcare business.

The talks pose major question marks over the future working arrangements of groups of GPs at more than a dozen centres, some of which have been awarded by trusts even after Assura had made it clear it was looking to sell.

Pulse first reported in November analyst predictions Assura would sell off or even close its loss making GP operations, after racking up £4.5m losses in its medical division.

The company has now revealed it is not only in talks which may lead to a bid for its entire business but also in ‘exclusive discussions' about a specific sell off of its majority interest in its ‘GPco' business.

Despite the uncertainty PCTs have continued to enter into contracts with the company, which has won or reached preferred bidder stage for more than 70 PCT tenders.

Just last month North Birmingham announced Assura had picked up its latest contract, a GP led centre in north Birmingham.

One GP working running an Assura GP led centre said: ‘There's great uncertainty and we are pretty much in the dark. The fact that each Assura centre is based on a limited liability partnership and each one is different would make it very complicated for a new provider to come in and take over.'

A spokesperson for Virgin refused to confirm or deny it was in talks with Assura.

It would be a remarkable U-turn with Virgin Healthcare having announced in September 2008 that it was shelving its plans to launch into general practice, blaming the economic downturn.

The company had tried to sign up GPs to work in a series of new primary care centres in almost 30 towns across the country, having planned to offer long-term leases to GPs, who would operate alongside a range of fee-paying private services.

Virgin told Pulse it had been inundated with interested parties after up to 3,000 GPs attended road shows on its proposals. The company claimed more than 300 GPs had signed up to join its venture.

Virgin Healthcare is preparing to make dramatic return to primary care Virgin's GP plans

January 2006: Virgin Healthcare expresses interest in entering primary care 'in the longer term'

October 2007: Virgin is among private firms to meet Lord Darzi to discuss a possible role in primary care provision, along with Assura

February 2008: Road shows held across 26 towns attract more than 3,000 GPs, along with anti-privatisation protestors

May 2008: Virgin Healthcare announces up to 300 GP practices have expressed interest in its model

September 2008: Virgin pulls the plug on its plans, blaming the dire economic environment but does not rule out a return