Page last updated at 04:23 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 05:23 UK

Private firms face Scots GP block

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News, in Edinburgh

Private sector involvement is encouraged in England

Ministers in Scotland plan to close what they say is a "legal loophole" in the GP contract that could allow private firms to run surgeries.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon told a British Medical Association conference how she intends to prevent firms getting a foothold in GP care.

In England a host of firms are bidding for contracts to run GP services after encouragement from ministers.

Ms Sturgeon said there was a "battle of ideas" on the future of healthcare.

I am firmly opposed to the privatisation of healthcare
Nicola Sturgeon
Health Secretary for Scotland

Scotland already has a much cooler relationship with the private sector than England does.

It only uses private firms for hospital treatment as a last resort - unlike England where one in 10 non-emergency NHS operations is carried out by the private sector.

In GP care, there has been much more gradual involvement, but deals have been or are in the process of being signed in London and Derbyshire.

Doctors also say the forthcoming creation of a network of polyclinics will lead to further privatisation.

In Scotland, there has only been one example of a company bidding for a GP contract.

This happened in Lanarkshire in 2006, but the firm was not successful after a local outcry.

Now the Scottish National Party administration is looking to ensure that it does not happen at all by barring private firms from bidding for family doctor contracts.

There are a range of contracts to which health chiefs can sign doctors up.

Just one of them allows deals to be done with private firms and it is this one the Scottish ministers are targeting.

Ms Sturgeon said: "I think there is a battle of ideas going on about the future direction of healthcare.

"A battle between the values of the market, of internal competition and contestability and the values of public service, of co-operation and collaboration.

"I am firmly opposed to the privatisation of healthcare and to this end the Scottish government will legislate to make sure there is no privatisation of GP services by the backdoor."

The move was welcomed by Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA, who gave a speech praising the approach of Scotland at the opening of the four-day conference in Edinburgh on Monday.

He said: "This is yet another example of how Scotland has got it right when it comes to the NHS.

"It is encouraging to note how in Scotland they are demonstrating that they are committed to a public service when it comes to health - I only hope the government in Westminster takes note."

But a Department of Health spokeswoman said ministers in England were committed to the private sector.

"Where the private sector offers high quality patient care, good value for money and is meeting local needs we will continue to bring them into working as part of the family of NHS providers."

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