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So much for only using private firms as a last resort

PCTs are courting private providers as never before, and both Labour and the Tories are paving the way for greater commercialism in the NHS – but as Saturday's forthcoming protest suggests, surely this isn't what the people want?

It was not so long ago that unions, including the BMA, were celebrating what was heralded as a major U-turn by the Government in its policy towards the private sector.

In declaring that the NHS was the Department of Health's preferred provider – and that private firms would be employed only as a last resort – health secretary Andy Burnham in September provoked the venom of some in his own party, who felt he had gone too far.

Others greeted it as a return to something more like the traditional values of the NHS.

But this week's Pulse investigation makes a mockery of the policy as it stands, by revealing that PCTs across the country – driven by the economic crisis facing the NHS – have been courting private firms as never before, desperately trying to slash their spending by outsourcing services to new, supposedly cheaper providers – although past experience has proved this is not always the case.

In some areas spending on private providers has shot up by almost a quarter in a year, and this during a period in which many were concerned that Mr Burnham's policy would be a barrier to new entrants.

Last week the DH finally got round to publishing the document that will guide PCTs in making the decisions which will decide if the preferred provider policy has any teeth.

Although its guidance does include a ‘two strikes and you're out policy', meaning NHS contractors cannot simply be replaced by alternative providers without first being given two chances to improve, the main thrust of the guidelines – accompanied by two documents ramping up moves towards greater, not less, commercialism – is geared firmly in favour of opening up the market.

Pulse's investigation shows plans for millions of pounds of NHS contracts to be replaced by new contracts with, in many cases, private providers. After this latest message the process will surely accelerate significantly.

And this week the Conservatives went further than ever in their commitment to embracing private involvement in the NHS, should they win the election.

Shadow health minister Mark Simmonds told Pulse the party would rip up even Mr Burnham's watered-down guidance and welcome new providers with open arms.

Yet surely the policies of both parties are in stark contrast to the public mood. On Saturday thousands of protesters, including GPs, are set to take to the streets of London in a demonstration against nationwide NHS cuts and privatisation, such as plans to run down hospitals and replace them with services in the community which in many cases will be run by private firms.

It will be interesting to see whether they buy Mr Simmonds's argument that private firms are not only interested in profits, or indeed Mr Burnham's new-found love of the market.

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