BMA attacks Covid deal between private hospitals and NHS

By Robin Stride

The new three-month agreement between the NHS and ten independent healthcare organisations has come under fire from the BMA, which claims it could hit private patients’ treatments and their doctors’ incomes.

Under the deal, private staff and facilities are on standby to support the NHS if the Omicron variant leads to unsustainable levels of hospitalisations or staff absences.

But the doctors’ union has written to the national medical director of NHS England, Prof Stephen Powis, expressing concerns that the Government’s contract may have a significant negative impact on private patient care – such as those with life-threatening conditions.

It claimed there was little evidence to suggest reserving private hospital beds would increase NHS capacity and ample evidence to suggest it would adversely impact private patient care. 

A BMA survey on the effects of a previous deal involving the bulk of private providers in March 2020 found that 60% of the private practice doctors who responded were unable to provide care to their patients. 

Around a quarter reported that private patients presented later than they should have – citing NHS bed reservation and subsequent limited capacity as the reason. 

Care interrupted

Dr Jeremy Lawrance

The association said: ‘As such, the BMA is concerned that this new contract will mimic the previous one and result in even more private patients having their care interrupted, including those needing cancer operations and those on immunosuppressives.

‘The BMA is also of the view that there is a financial aspect to be considered. There has been a lack of transparency around how much was spent by the NHS on purchasing services from the private hospitals early in the pandemic without a clear indication of what the NHS received in return. 

‘This agreement is costing the Government a considerable amount and has the potential to prove to be a serious misuse of taxpayers’ money.’

BMA private practice committee (PPC) co-chairmen Dr Jeremy Lawrance and Dr Jennifer Yell said in a statement: ‘It’s shocking that the Government decided to make this decision without consulting doctors working in the private sector, particularly after how unsuccessful the previous agreement was. 

Dr Jennifer Yell

‘While policy makers might think this is a good idea, doctors on the ground do not – we are of the view that this agreement will not fulfil its intention of boosting NHS capacity but rather further impact private patient care and prove to be a waste of taxpayers’ money.’

They claimed the new contract was ‘an exercise in smoke and mirrors’.

Questions needing answering

The PPC has asked for a meeting with the Government to discuss issues including:

  • What provisions it plans to provide for private patients whose care is interrupted, because of  the agreement, to ensure their conditions do not further deteriorate, including those who will be placed on extensive waiting lists.
  • How it has calculated the number of reserved beds needed ‘considering so many went unused during the previous agreement’.
  • What support private practice doctors will receive as they face mounting pressure from their patients whose expectations ‘will inevitably fail to be met’.
  • What support private practice doctors who experience a significant income reduction will receive. 

The BMA said its survey findings showed many private doctors lost income during the previous agreement, with some reporting an 80% reduction. It said these doctors were not paid out in the way that private hospitals were and did not qualify for the furlough scheme.

According to the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, private treatment would continue as usual under the arrangements and only in very extreme circumstances where a ‘surge’ was triggered by the NHS would routine private services potentially be suspended.

Its chief executive David Hare told Independent Practitioner Today: ‘In response to a call by the Government for further independent sector support during the Omicron wave of Covid-19, the new deal will provide much-needed additional capacity to the NHS this winter – including for vital cancer treatment  – while ensuring that independent sector providers can continue to treat private patients as usual.’