Jeremy Hunt personally intervened to ensure Virgin hospital contract in his constituency

“Jeremy Hunt, the new health secretary, personally intervened to encourage the controversial takeover of NHS hospitals in his constituency by a private company, Virgin Care, raising fresh concerns last night over his appointment.

Hunt, who replaced Andrew Lansley in last week’s cabinet reshuffle, was so concerned by a delay to the £650m deal earlier this year that he asked for assurances from NHS Surrey officials that it would be swiftly signed.

Virgin Care, which is part-owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, subsequently agreed on a five-year contract in March to run seven hospitals along with dentistry services, sexual health clinics, breast cancer screening and other community services. The takeover took place despite concerns being raised in the local NHS risk register about the impact on patient care following the transfer of management from the NHS to one of the country’s largest private healthcare firms, until recently known as Assura Medical.

The director of nursing highlighted the danger of “significant issues” emerging during the first year of Virgin Care control, which NHS Surrey has tried to ameliorate through contractual controls. There was also prolonged wrangling between NHS Surrey and Virgin Care over the terms of the deal, including staff’s terms of employment. However, during the lengthy delay before the deal was agreed, Hunt intervened to ask for assurances from the head of the primary care trust “that the delay is to ensure the best possible outcome for patients and staff”. Writing on his website about the issue, he added: “I hope that Assura and NHS Surrey are able to complete the transfer of services soon, but I am glad they are crossing every T and dotting every I.”

The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, said last night that the revelation would add to concerns about Hunt’s appointment and his affinity to big business so soon after the furore over the minister’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp while he was culture secretary during the attempted takeover of BSkyB. …”