NHS England strikes private hospitals deal to fight Omicron surge

What we need are community hospitals – oh wait …..

Hospitals in England will be able to use private hospitals and staff under a deal with the NHS to maintain services as Omicron cases surge, avoiding delays in treatment for patients with illnesses such as cancer.

Sarah Marsh www.theguardian.com 

The move comes as hospitals have also been told to find extra beds in gyms and education centres owing to rising numbers of Covid patients.

The three-month agreement means private healthcare staff and facilities will be on standby to support the NHS if required and to maintain services for patients who can be referred, including some of those waiting for cancer surgery.

Nightingale hubs are being created in the grounds of some hospitals as part of a move to create up to 4,000 extra beds.

Announcing the deal, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “This agreement demonstrates the collaboration across our healthcare services to create an additional safeguard that ensures people can continue to get the care they need from our world-leading NHS, whenever they need it.”

The move has been put in place to make sure the health service is not overwhelmed and to avoid implementing further Covid restrictions on socialising at pubs, clubs and sports venues as have been introduced in Scotland and Wales.

Last week, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said more than one in six NHS trusts across England had declared a critical incident due to Covid pressures in recent weeks, adding that the Omicron variant was putting “very real” pressure on the health service.

The agreement includes Practice Plus Group, Spire Healthcare, Nuffield Health, Circle Health Group, Ramsay Health Care UK, Healthcare Management Trust, One Healthcare, Horder Healthcare, Aspen Healthcare and KIMS Hospital, the NHS said.

Paolo Pieri, the CEO of Circle, said that since the first Covid wave in March 2020, its hospitals had supported the NHS by performing urgent, life-saving operations and treatments for more than 400,000 NHS patients.

“We stand ready to support the NHS in its time of need,” Pieri said.

Spire said the final details of the contract still had to be agreed. The deal expires on 31 March.

A Whitehall source told the Telegraph: “We are going to do everything we can to avoid more restrictions … Our lines of defence through vaccines, testing and antivirals are crucial and holding up but we are also boosting NHS capacity as much as we can.

“Sajid wants the NHS to make use of the independent sector if needed. The aim is to ensure as much capacity as possible is available to help the NHS get through the Omicron wave.”

In March 2020, a similar deal costing about £400m was agreed, when private hospitals provided more beds, ventilators and thousands of healthcare staff to help the NHS fight against Covid. At the time, 20,000 staff were offered, including 10,000 nurses and 700 doctors.

The Centre for Health and the Public Interest (CHPI), a thinktank that has raised concerns about how little NHS-funded work was done under the previous deal, said it doubted the independent sector had the capacity to treat meaningful numbers of NHS-funded patients.

“This new announcement raises more questions than it answers,” said Sid Ryan, a researcher at the CHPI. “Firstly, it’s not clear what help the private sector can really provide when it relies so heavily on NHS consultants working privately outside their core NHS hours. The private sector may have beds, but their workforce is vanishingly small, and just as challenged by Omicron as the NHS, so it seems unlikely their support will be the key difference-maker.

“The last time NHS England stepped in to override local contracting by NHS trusts, the taxpayer ended up footing the bill for a lot of empty hospital capacity. Are we risking that happening again?”

The number of hospitalisations has been slower to rise than Covid cases, relative to previous waves of the disease, with ministers buoyed by the booster rollout. However, hospitals have struggled as a result of NHS staff being among the hundreds of thousands of people self-isolating because of the rapidly increasing number of Omicron cases.