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GPs award potential £700m contract to Virgin Care

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6130 (Published 14 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6130
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. London

GPs on a clinical commissioning group and local councillors have awarded a contract that could be worth £700m (€810m; $880m) to the private health company Virgin Care to run or oversee 200 types of NHS and social care services to people in Bath and northeast Somerset.

The decision, announced last week, has provoked concern over what is thought will be one of the largest handovers of public services to a private firm to operate when the new arrangements begin in April next year.

Bath and North East Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Bath and North East Somerset Council announced on 10 November that they had awarded a seven year contract to Virgin Care. The contract, worth £70m a year, has the option to extend for a further three years, meaning that it could be worth a total of £700m between 2017 and 2027.

The decision was made, said the CCG, after extensive consultation with service users, members of the public, and health and care professionals.

Under the agreement, Virgin Care will deliver some services directly, as part of a mental health collaboration, and will subcontract some services from other providers. The services include community health and care services such as diabetes nursing, physiotherapists, speech and language therapy, independent living services, and district nurses, together with mental health services, public health nursing, the NHS Health Checks programme, and dementia support.

A spokesman for the CCG said that there was no intention for Virgin Care to take over running GP services but that it wanted community services to work with general practices through specific locality hubs that align with the area’s 26 practices, allowing for closer collaboration.

The other serious bid for the contract was from a local consortium led by Sirona Care and Health, a not for profit company, which bid in partnership with local NHS trusts and charities.

Ian Orpen, the CCG’s clinical chair, said, “Following extensive consultation with local people and a very rigorous procurement process, the CCG board is assured that Virgin Care is the right organisation to deliver the personalised and preventative care that local people have asked for.

“We will be working closely with the council and our new partner, Virgin Care, over the coming months to ensure that services and staff are transferred across safely on 1 April 2017 and to minimise disruption to the care and support that people currently receive.”

However, concern was voiced by Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA’s General Practitioners Committee, who told The BMJ, “The BMA believes that services should be delivered by NHS providers who have the experience, expertise, and commitment to the values of the NHS necessary to provide patients with the most effective and safe care.

“Past history has shown that private sector companies take over contracts with little understanding of or connection to NHS structures and have a mindset that is driven by a desire to make a profit, which can lead to a focus on providing services at the lowest possible cost.”

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, criticised the decision, saying, “Under the Tories hospitals are facing financial crisis while patient care suffers, yet all the Tories offer is further cuts and outsourcing to private companies like Virgin.”

Almost 3000 local residents have signed a petition by the campaign group 38 Degrees, which says, “If this contract is awarded to Virgin, it will contribute to the rapidly advancing privatisation of the NHS.”

A spokesman for Virgin Care said, “We are really pleased to have been chosen by the council and CCG to deliver more joined-up care for people across Bath and northeast Somerset.”

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