As if the National Health Service did not have enough to celebrate at present, now there is news of the arrival of a big new player in what we all may soon have to call the UK “healthcare market”. That player is “Virgin Care”. Not content with providing such a popular rail service, and not too busy buying Northern Rock from the taxpayer at a knock down price, Sir Richard Branson has now turned his attention to what may soon be the rich pickings of the NHS.Assura Group got rid of its then loss-making medical services business by selling 75% of the stock to “Virgin Healthcare Holdings” in March 2010, in return for a £4 million loan note. That business has now changed its name from Assura Medical to Virgin Care.
In June 2011, the Independent reported that that Assura Medical, had links with more than half of the board members at three out of 52 of the first wave of GP consortia (now known as Clinical Commissioning Groups). Most of these board members were GP members of Assura; their practice had formed a joint company with it. These companies provide community-based services in areas including sexual health and out-of-hours care, with profits split evenly between Assura Medical and member practices.
In September 2011, Assura Medical was named as the preferred bidder in one of the NHS’s biggest ever procurements: a £450 million contract to provide community services in Surrey over five years. The contract was due to begin on 31st December 2011, but the website ‘Health Investor’ has reported it is yet to be finalised. A spokesman for Virgin Care was quoted as saying that “discussions are ongoing” about the handover of services.
Virgin Care is already involved in a major dispute with North Yorkshire and York Primary Care Trust and York Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which it has reported to the Co-operation and Competition Panel for NHS Services (CCP). The dispute is over procurement of a community based musculoskeletal and orthopaedic clinical assessment, triage and treatment service in the York and Selby areas. Ironically, given claims that compeition will cut NHS costs, Assura have claimed that the winning bidder, York Hospitals, had bid too low for the tender and would not be able to deliver the service for the price stated. The CCP has now launched phase two (the more detailed part) of its investigation and is due to report on Monday 12th March.
Since the last Conservative Government’s hopelessly bungled privatisation of British Rail, Virgin Rail has been bringing its unique brand of service to passengers on the West Coast Main Line. Now, if the current Government forces through its even more shambolic break-up of the NHS, patients can look forward to the same happy experience with Virgin Care.
David Cameron and Andrew Lansley deny furiously that the purpose of the Health Bill is market “competition” and private sector provision of healthcare. But if you ignore them and listen carefully to what is really happening, you will hear the cries of wolves and vultures waiting to feast on the body of one of Britain’s most important and most loved institutions.