A County Hall decision to award a £104m healthcare contract to the private sector instead of the NHS has sparked a storm of protest in Lancashire.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Care company has beaten Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust in the tendering process to run the county’s 0-19 Healthy Child Programme for the next five years.
Today the furious Labour leader on the county council branded the decision “privatisation by the back door.”
Coun Azhar Ali, who is going to London today talking to MPs about the issue, stormed: “This is a massive contract and it has major ramifications for healthcare in Lancashire.
“It is a terrible blow and could have an impact on the viability of the Lancashire Care Trust.”
The programme, which covers services such as school nurses and health visitors for children and young people, is worth up to £20.8m a year.
It is exactly what we have been warning people about. These contracts are now being given to the private sector and it is clearly the Government’s agenda.
The service is currently carried out by the Lancashire Care Trust, but the contract runs out at the end of March.
The Post understands Virgin pipped LCT by the narrowest of margins in the procurement process at County Hall.
The deal is now in a legal “standstill” period to allow the unsuccessful bidders to lodge a formal appeal. The Post understands LCT are considering a challenge.
Tory leaders today defended the process as “open and transparent”.
But trade union Unite, which has hundreds of members employed by the Trust, condemned the council’s decision to overlook the NHS.
“I’m appalled,” said Unite official Steve Turner of the Protect Chorley Hospital from Cuts and Privatisation group. “This just shows the contempt that the Tories on the county council hold public sector workers in.
“It is exactly what we have been warning people about. These contracts are now being given to the private sector and it is clearly the Government’s agenda.”
The decision to award the contract comes only months after Virgin took over the running of community health and urgent care services in West Lancashire, replacing the Southport and Ormskirk NHS Trust.
West Lancashire MP Rosie Cooper described that move as “a slap in the face for local NHS providers”.
Talking about the latest deal between Virgin and LCC, Preston MP Mark Hendrick said he would be holding talks in Westminster today with other Lancashire members to plan opposition to the decision which involves more than £100m of taxpayers’ cash in the county.
“I am angry,” he said. “This is not privatisation by the back door, its privatisation by the front door.
“I am concerned that this is possibly a political decision, given the new political complexion at County Hall.
“I will be getting together with colleagues to decide what we should do about it and whether we should take this up with the Health Secretary.”
All three key parties involved - Virgin, Lancashire County Council and the Lancashire Care NHS Trust - have refused to give details of the bidding until after the standstill period has ended.
A Virgin spokesman said: “We are currently involved in a procurement process and it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.”
The Trust said: “At present we are in a standstill period, this is part of a formal legal process and as such we cannot comment any further at this time.”
LCC declined to even confirm names of the two bidders involved.
County hall statement
Lancashire County Council has moved to shoot down Labour claims of a political motive in awarding the new healthcare contract.
Shaun Turner, cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “The council has carried out an open and transparent procurement process, inviting bids from suitably experienced organisations, and has now chosen a successful provider.
“The successful provider scored more highly in a rigorous process heavily weighted in favour of the quality of service.
“They will deliver modern services that will help us narrow the gap in health between different groups and communities, while integrating more closely with other children’s and family services.
“This is the first time the county council has carried out this process, since taking over public health responsibilities, and it has enabled us to ensure that we will have a consistent range of services across the whole county, available to all, with additional support for those who most need it.
“By law, we are now in a ‘standstill’ period, before the contract can be confirmed, which gives unsuccessful bidders the opportunity to appeal.”
Privatisation in Lancashire
The private sector has been nibbling away at the NHS for years in Lancashire.
It started with ancillary services like IT provision, contracts for cleaning and catering being farmed out to private providers.
But now companies like Virgin are making inroads into healthcare provision, with NHS Trusts outsourcing medical services they can no longer afford to provide.
In a Post investigation last year the trust which runs Preston and Chorley Hospitals was spending more than £30m on pharmacy services, £10m on outsourcing medical equipment and a further £11m on agency labour.
On top of that £25m was being spent on privatised medical services including acute, renal, oncology, pathology and neurosurgery.
Chorley MP Lindsay Hoyle described the figures as “astonishing”.
But Karen Partington, chief executive of the Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, insisted: “We have no policy of outsourcing care services.”
Healthy child programme
The service is aimed at improving and promoting health for all children and young people and prevent health inequalities.
It is a universal programme led by health visiting and school nursing services which aims to ensure that every child gets the good start they need to lay the foundations of a healthy life.
The service - described as high quality, cost-effective, integrated and targeted - is intended to break the cycle of reliance on high cost reactive services and reduce poor health outcomes and inequalities which are seen across Lancashire.
It aims, amongst other things, to help parents develop and sustain a strong bond with children, encourage care that keeps children healthy and safe, protect children from serious disease through screening and immunisation and reduce childhood obesity through healthy eating and exercise.
In addition to the 0-19 public health nursing services (costing up to £20.6m a year), the contract is believed to include vision screening services, infant feeding services and oral health promotion.
The contract which was up for tender is for an initial three years, with an option to extend by a further two years.
Virgin bought a controlling interest in Assura Medical in 2010.
It is now a private provider of more than 400 NHS and social care services across Britain.
These include primary care services such as GP practices, urgent care centres, minor injury units and walk-in centres.
The company also provides intermediate care services like audiology, opthalmology, physiotherapy and dermatology.
On top of that Virgin provides wheelchair services, prison healthcare, a sexual health service, health visiting, district nursing and end of life care.
In social care it also provides help for people with learning difficulties, supporting people to live independently and also to find work.
But the company attracted some unfavourable publicity this week when, following a legal battle, it reportedly received a large out-of-court cash settlement from the NHS after it lost a bid to provide healthcare services in Surrey.
Virgin sued after it lost out in the bidding for an £82m contract for a range of services for children. The contract was awarded to the Surrey Healthy Children and Families Service.