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Assura Darzi deals are Virgin on the ridiculous

By Ian Quinn

The return of Sir Richard Branson to the GP fold would add even more colour to a primary care landscape which will certainly won't be boring in months to come, thanks to these most trying of financial times.

But the fact that it could mean GPs' staff wearing the Virgin red, who currently work for private firm Assura, surely begs huge questions of the already highly controversial rollout of Darzi centres across the country.

For months now it has been an open secret in the City that Assura, which has won or reached preferred bidder status in no less than 70 tenders, has been looking to sell its GP operations, with some analysts having even suggested it might close them down altogether, such has been the extreme difficulty for private companies trying to make enough money for primary care to please their shareholders.

Yet trusts have gone on giving Assura contracts.

Last month Birmingham East and North declared it had ‘taken into account what our patients wanted' in awarding the latest Darzi contract to the company.

It seems inconceivable, even amongst the most pro-privatisation citizens of Birmingham that most patients would want a contract to go to a company which was actively looking to get out of the health market.

In September, the man himself, Lord Darzi, even came out of his ‘health department retirement' to open a £10m Assura clinic in Hornsey, London, boasting that it was a case of GPs, community and secondary providers working ‘more closely together to provide a broader range of services, at times convenient to patients.'

Yet how many other sectors in the business world would see companies enter into long term contracts with a partner whose intention is not to be around to finish the job?

Perhaps there are some but this is the NHS - and an organisation where the NHS is supposed to be the preferred provider.

The whole business adds considerable fuel to the fire of the BMA's campaign to stop creeping privatisation in the NHS, with a poster campaign set to launch at practices across the country, warning how NHS funds are being increasingly sucked into private coffers.

Its doubtful many of the new cartoons will be pinned up at Assura's GP led centres where staff must have serious questions over what the future will hold, not least the female receptionists who must be dreading being swung over Sir Richard's shoulder in typical Branson fashion at any time now.

The music, rail and ballooning tycoon's re-entry into the primary care atmosphere, so soon after the economic climate had appeared to burst Virgin's primary care bubble, will also test the appetite of those 3,000 GPs who previous attended road shows with a view to possibly joining the firm's operation in the future.

Assura's move to sell off its Darzi centres will add fuel to the fire of the BMA's new poster campaign