Private surgery for NHS patients soars under Tories
The number of NHS patients having surgery in private hospitals has trebled since 2010, sparking accusations that for-profit companies are cashing in on a service being privatised by stealth.
NHS figures obtained by the Guardian show that it paid for 214,967 people in England to have an operation in a private hospital in 2009-10. But that had soared to 613,833 last year, meaning it has nearly tripled in nine years.
The disclosure will intensify the debate about the privatisation of healthcare, already a key issue in the election campaign. Labour says Boris Johnson will sell large parts of the NHS to US private health firms as part of a post-Brexit trade deal. The party also says that the NHS’s annual drug bill could soar from £18bn to £45bn a year if US pharmaceutical firms are given freer access to the British market. The prime minister has dismissed those claims.
The figures come as NHS trusts are increasingly being forced to send patients to have procedures in private hospitals because they are too busy and under-staffed to do them themselves.
The sharp rise in outsourced surgery in recent years has coincided with the waiting list for non-urgent operations ballooning to a total of 4.6m – the largest number seen since records began in 2007.
Trusts are striking deals with independent providers to carry out surgery, including cataract removals and hip and knee replacements, and also some non-surgical treatments, including for cancer. For example, in February and March, King’s College hospital trust in London sent 216 patients to BMI Healthcare to either have surgery or undergo an endoscopy to help cut its waiting list. It also paid for 10 patients to undergo bariatric surgery at the Princess Grace private hospital in central London.
In addition, it has paid £1.3m to the company 18 Week Support to treat patients with eye problems whom it could not deal with fast enough itself.
“A decade of cutting over 15,000 beds and failures to recruit staff under the Tories is forcing more and more patients out of the public NHS into poor quality
private hospitals,” said Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary.
The 613,833 NHS-funded private procedures last year were undertaken at 296 private hospitals by 144 separate providers. BMI Healthcare treated the largest number of patients – 115,925 – at its hospitals. Spire hospitals performed 80,095 procedures and Circle Health did 41,435.
Dr Tony O’Sullivan, a retired paediatrician and co-chair of the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, said: “These are totally shocking figures that provide hard evidence that the NHS has been enfeebled after close to a decade of Conservative government and been left desperately short of staff and money.”
The huge rise in outsourced operations is an embarrassment for Matt Hancock, the health and social care secretary, who told MPs in January that “there is no privatisation of the NHS on my watch”. Ashworth said: “The failing health secretary has allowed waiting lists to balloon with patients left in pain and distress. A bonanza for the private sector is the consequence, exposing Mr Hancock’s famous claim of ‘no privatisation on his watch’ as utterly hollow.”
The Guardian disclosed in July that private firms were given a record £9.18bn of the NHS budget in 2018-19, up from £8.07bn in 2014-15.
In another example of outsourcing, Northumbria Healthcare trust has agreed to send 120-150 people a year for treatment at the Rutherford Cancer Centre, a private facility.
The organisation representing independent providers of NHS care defended their role and claimed their involvement meant patients were able to avoid spending a long time waiting for the NHS to treat them.
“While there’s been a growth in the use of private provision in the NHS, this still equates to just 7% of the NHS budget, and the recent slowdown in work going into the private sector has coincided with a period where NHS waiting lists have increased substantially,” said David Hare, chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network.
“The reality is that without private provision of NHS services, patients would wait far longer for their care and have less choice, which is why the public repeatedly report being relaxed over who provides their NHS care, providing it is high quality and remains free at the point of use.”
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, pledged last week that a Labour government would get rid of all privatisation in the NHS by taking contracts back in-house as they came to an end. “We believe actually we shouldn’t be allowing people to profiteer from the NHS. The general public feel as though we shouldn’t be pouring money into the pockets of profiteers,” he told the Andrew Marr show on BBC One.
Privatisation of healthcare is a battleground in the election, with Labour saying the Tories would sell parts of the NHS to the US