A three-month agreement with ten independent healthcare organisations will see their staff and facilities put on standby to support the NHS if the Omicron variant leads to unsustainable levels of hospitalisations or staff absences.
According to the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN), 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.
NHS England has struck the deal with Aspen Healthcare, Circle Health Group, Healthcare Management Trust, Horder Healthcare, KIMS Hospital, Nuffield Health, One Healthcare, Practice Plus Group, Ramsay Health Care UK and Spire Healthcare.
IHPN chief executive David Hare said: ‘Independent sector providers have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the NHS throughout the pandemic, playing a key role in enabling vital NHS care including cancer and cardiology treatment to continue, whilst also maintaining services for private patients.
‘The arrangements being announced today, in response to a call by Government and the NHS for further independent-sector support during the Omicron wave of Covid-19, will help to bolster planned NHS care, including cancer treatment this winter while ensuring that independent sector providers can continue to treat private patients.
‘The arrangements will also provide the NHS with additional targeted support in the event that local NHS pressures are deemed as unsustainable.’
NHS hospitals have been asked to create additional capacity by identifying areas such as gyms and education centres to create ‘super surge’ wards on top of their usual surge capacity.
Nightingale hubs are also being created in the grounds of some hospitals as part of the drive to create up to 4,000 ‘super surge’ beds.
The private sector deal will allow NHS trusts to send a wider range of patients to the independent sector for treatment, including those requiring some forms of cancer surgery and other care not normally delivered under existing arrangements.
NHS England said the independent sector surge capacity would only be triggered if Covid patients requiring treatment were to threaten the NHS’s ability to provide urgent care.
NHS England chief operating officer and Covid incident director Sir David Sloman said: ‘With the high number of Omicron cases placing even greater pressure on hospitals now and over the coming weeks, this deal, struck under direction from the Secretary of State, means as many people as possible can continue to get the care they need.
‘It also places independent health providers on standby to provide further help should hospitals face unsustainable levels of hospitalisations or staff absences.
‘Just like the Nightingale hubs being created across the country, we hope never to need their support but it will be there if needed.’
NHS England said independent sector capacity use is at almost 115% of pre-pandemic levels, including over 470,000 day cases, nearly 2,800,000 surgical procedures and over 500,000 diagnostic tests in the last year.
The new deal will run until the end of March, when local arrangements with those providers will resume.
If NHS trusts or systems need to trigger the surge element of the new deal, then routine services at an independent-sector site would be suspended to make facilities and staff available to the health service.
The NHS would seek to return to current arrangements, allowing independent sector hospitals to resume usual activities including treating NHS patients, ‘as soon as possible’, according to NHS England.