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Mother challenges decision to make Virgin preferred bidder for children’s services

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6837 (Published 09 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6837
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

The mother of two children with mental health problems challenged a decision to award a contract to run children’s services in Devon to Richard Branson’s private healthcare company in the High Court this week.

The woman, who has not been named to protect her children’s anonymity, claimed that Devon County Council and the primary care cluster of NHS Devon, Plymouth and Torbay had failed to properly carry out the equality impact assessment required before accepting Virgin Care as preferred bidder for the £132m (€164m; $211m) contract. The law requires public authorities to ensure that their decisions do not have a disproportionately negative effect on particular groups, such as disabled people.

Virgin Care defeated two other bidders to win the three year contract, which will see 1100 staff transfer from the county council and NHS Devon to the healthcare company by 1 April 2013.1

If the contract goes ahead the company will take over frontline health and social services, including mental health care, school nurses, health visitors, and services for children with disabilities and long term health conditions. The county council will retain responsibility for child protection.

Government policy is to encourage private companies to compete with public sector organisations and charities to provide NHS services, although care will remain free to users. But some parents and doctors have questioned whether a profit making corporation that is more readily associated with planes, trains, and phone contracts can be the best provider of services for ill and disabled children.

Stuart Logan, professor of paediatric epidemiology at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in Exeter, commenting on the decision last July, told the BBC, “These are some of the most vulnerable, most challenged children in our society and, apart from the practical side, it just feels wrong that people should be making a profit out of providing services for these children.”2

Rebecca Harriott, director of commissioning development for NHS Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, said, “The proceedings are being brought by a private individual on the grounds that insufficient regard was taken of the public sector equality duty and that internal policies and procedures relating to this were not followed.”

But she said that the cluster believed that there was no case to answer and was strongly defending the action, heard at Port Talbot Justice Centre in Wales. Meanwhile, the process to award a final contract and transfer staff by 31 March 2013 was going ahead, she added.

“The decision to work with Virgin follows an exhaustive tendering process that has involved a large number of parents and carers, professionals, and young people themselves, as well as affected staff. We know that these are important and sensitive services, and it has been vital to ensure that a winning bidder would be able to keep services together whilst continuing to innovate and develop our integrated community based approach.”

A Virgin Care spokesman said, “We have a very strong track record of providing NHS care to vulnerable groups, including children, for many years now, strengthened with extensive expertise through our contract to provide community services in Surrey.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6837

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