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Virgin snaps up Assura GP companies to become leading Darzi centre provider

By Ian Quinn

Virgin tycoon Richard Branson has dramatically signalled his arrival as a major player in UK general practice after a buyout of the leading private provider of Darzi centres.

Virgin Healthcare Holdings has acquired a majority shareholding in Assura Medical Limited, which provides a raft of services in partnership with GPs, including a string of GP-led health centres and polyclinics across the country.

Pulse reported last month that Virgin was believed to be in talks with Assura, which we revealed in November last year was looking to sell off or even close its loss-making GP operations, after racking up £4.5m losses in its medical division.

The deal comes with Virgin poised to take advatage of the massive looming shift in NHS care to private providers.

It has secured a 75.1% share-holding in Assura Medical but to the surprise of some in the City, Assura will retain a significant minority shareholding (24.9%)

Richard Burrell, chief executive of Assura, will join the board of Virgin Healthcare as part of the deal, and at least initially the partnership will operate under the Assura Medical brand.

However, Virgin, which is famous for its brand name, looks set to become a key private provider for the NHS and has set out an ambition for its new arm to become 'one of the leading companies providing primary healthcare services to the NHS and its patients'.

Sir Richard Branson said: 'Healthcare is a sector that the Virgin Group has been extremely interested in entering for some time, but we have always said that the partner and the timing had to be right – with Assura we believe we have found the perfect partner.'

'The Assura Medical business is underpinned by a passion for patients, a strong focus for delivering quality and safe health outcomes and a commitment to work in partnership with those who deliver healthcare. I am excited that Virgin and Assura will continue to develop this business, working alongside our NHS partners, to bring excellent, high-quality services right to the heart of patients' communities.'

Mr Burrell added: 'Virgin is the ideal organisation to enable the Assura Medical business to fulfil its potential. We have developed a strong business model to assist GPs and the NHS and an established platform which, with Virgin's help, will flourish and be much stronger in the long term.'

'Virgin is a consumer brand synonymous with quality and service and is well placed to serve a patient-led NHS.'

Andreas Wesemann, Managing Director at Quayle Munro, the UK merchant bank which advised Virgin on the deal, said: ‘Virgin Healthcare is ideally positioned to take advantage of the shake-up of healthcare provision in the UK as patients and commissioners seek better, more flexible and cost-effective treatment.'

‘Virgin has a strong record of providing high-quality customer service, and we are confident that it will develop into a major force in the UK healthcare sector in coming years.'

It signals a remarkable U-turn for Virgin Healthcare, which announced in September 2008 that it was shelving its plans to launch into general practice on the back of 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, and the company claimed more than 300 GPs had signed up to join its venture.

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