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Private firms cash in on new Covid surge with 3-month deal to relieve NHS

PRIVATE firms will be paid millions to treat NHS patients over the next three months as part of a new deal, slammed by campaigners as a “disgraceful waste of public funds.” 

It comes as hospitals were told yesterday to find extra beds — including in gyms and education centres — to cope with the rising number of Covid-19 patients. 

The three-month deal between NHS England and 10 private firms, secured for an undisclosed sum, is intended to allow patients to be sent to private hospitals for surgery, including for cancer.

Private hospitals and staff will also be placed on standby for urgent care if NHS trusts are overwhelmed by Covid patients. 

Announcing the move, Health and Social Care secretary Sajid Javid said the deal “demonstrates the collaboration across our healthcare services to create an additional safeguard that ensures people can continue to get the care they need.”

But NHS campaigners have warned against moves that force the health service into further dependence on the private sector.

“This government has spent the last decade making brutal budget cuts which have pushed the NHS to the brink, and they’re now using this as an excuse to hand out more money and contracts to private firms,” We Own It director Cat Hobbs said.  

“This not only opens the door to further privatisation of our NHS, it is also a disgraceful waste of public money.”

The group also highlighted failures by the private sector to previously alleviate NHS pressures during the first year of the pandemic. 

Two-thirds of the private hospital capacity block-purchased by NHS England in 2020 — to the tune of £400 million a month — went unused that summer, according to the Health Service Journal. 

This was because private hospitals rely on NHS doctors and nurses working outside of their contracted hours, meaning there was a shortage of staff.

Keep Our NHS Public co-chairman and retired consultant paediatrician Dr John Punti said a key feature of the government’s pandemic strategy has been “throwing money at the private sector.”

He said: “Instead of public health measures to reduce spread of infection and moves to retain and recruit staff, we now have unstaffed Nightingale hubs being built and private operators showered once again with largesse as omicron cases are allowed to surge.”

“This money should be invested in rebuilding a resilient NHS, and the private health sector — relying heavily as it does on NHS staff — requisitioned as part of the response to this national crisis.”

Harry Quilter-Pinner, health policy expert at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said that relying on the independent sector was only a temporary fix to the problem. 

“The evidence is clear: in the longer term the only sustainable solution is properly investing in the NHS, training and retaining more staff and reversing the decline in NHS capacity we have seen over the last decade,” he said. 

The new deal will run until the end of March. Firms benefiting from the agreement include Practice Plus Group, Spire Healthcare, Nuffield Health and Circle Health Group. 

The NHS has also been told to look at using spare capacity in gyms and education centres to create “super surge” wards, while Nightingale hubs are already being created in the grounds of some hospitals as part of a move to find up to 4,000 extra beds.

NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said: “This deal — on top of the NHS building extra capacity and assistance we have seen from the military — means there is some further support if necessary over the coming months.

“These emergency measures will not be a silver bullet and they should not mask the longer term issues facing the NHS, such as huge staff vacancies.”

PM Boris Johnson confirmed yesterday the government is considering reducing the time required to self-isolate after a positive Covid-19 test from seven days to five. 

“We are looking at the science and will act according to the science,” he said after being questioned about the issue during a visit to an Uxbridge vaccine clinic. 

The UK Health Security Agency estimates that 10 to 30 per cent of people who test positive for Covid-19 are still contagious on day six. 

The PM also stressed that lateral flow tests would remain free for “as long as is necessary” after it was reported that the people would soon have to start paying for them. 

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