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Tuesday, 31 October, 2000, 08:55 GMT
Milburn strikes private sector deal
Hospital ward
NHS hospitals will be able to transfer work to the private sector
Health Secretary Alan Milburn will sign a deal with the private sector on Tuesday to allow NHS patients to be treated in independent hospitals.

The agreement has come under fierce criticism, not least from some Labour MPs.

The "concordat" which Mr Milburn will sign with the Independent Healthcare Association will enable ministers to deliver on their promise, contained in July's NHS Plan, that where there is no spare capacity in the NHS, patients will be treated in the private sector.

Under the deal private hospitals will take on NHS patients, but use NHS doctors and nurses to treat them.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn
Alan Milburn promised top quality care for patients
Ministers say it will put an end to routine operations being cancelled because of lack of beds or operating room.

The concordat will allow the NHS in England and Wales to transfer patients to critical care beds in private hospitals when needed.

The agreement does not apply to Scotland. A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said the private health sector in Scotland was too small to make any formal agreement realistic.

The concordat will also cover intermediate care, meaning the NHS will be able to use rehabilitation and nursing resources in the independent sector.

Mr Milburn told the BBC that the problem in the NHS was one of lack of capacity, not lack of cash.

It does not address the fundamental problem in the NHS, which is its desperate shortage of doctors and nurses

Dr Ian Bogle, British Medical Association
He said occupancy rates of NHS hospital beds were running at approximately 80%, compared with under 50% in the private sector.

"If there are, for example, in private sector hospitals operating theatres that are standing idle or hospital beds that are not being used it seems sensible to take advantage of them for NHS patients.

"There is a world of difference between what is being proposed here, and what the Conservatives are now proposing, which is that more and more people should have to pay for their care," he said.

Tough negotiations

The concordat has been the subject of tough negotiations between the government and the private sector.

Officials have thrashed out an agreement over costs and standards designed to protect patients and offer value-for-money to the taxpayer.

Many hospitals and health authorities already have local agreements for using private sector facilities, but the concordat puts those informal deals on a nationally-agreed footing.

Sources insisted the agreement was not "privatisation through the back door" but a sensible use of available resources.

However, some critics are uneasy about a Labour government working so closely with the private sector.

David Hinchliffe
David Hinchliffe is unhappy about the deal
David Hinchliffe is the Labour chair of the Commons Health Select Committee.

He told the BBC: "I want assurances that what is being used is simply operating theatre and bed capacity and not staffing, because the private sector has a history of denuding the NHS of staffing at a local level.

"I also feel it is very wrong of the government to get into bed with the private sector which has, over the 50 years of the NHS, constantly attempted to undermine the concept of state health care.

"To me giving it comfort at a time when it is known that the public sector is struggling is not something I would expect a Labour government to do."

Tory health spokesman Dr Liam Fox said the agreement was "too little, too late".

"I very much approve of proper partnership between the NHS and the private sector but as usual the government has waited until they get into a crisis situation before they do anything."

Stephen Thornton, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health authorities and trusts, said: "NHS organisations will need to keep in mind the matter of value for money.

"They will not be using expensive private facilities when equally good clinical services are available in NHS organisations.

"Use of the private sector will continue to be only at the margin."

Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the British Medical Association, said: "I am happy to support this pragmatic approach to securing a better deal for NHS patients but it does not address the fundamental problem in the NHS, which is its desperate shortage of doctors and nurses."

The BBC's Niall Dickson
"An historic moment"
Chief Executive NHS Confederation, Stephen Thornton
"Across the board, public and private, we have a shortage of doctors in this country"
See also:

31 Oct 00 | Politics
27 Jul 00 | NHS reform
27 Jul 00 | NHS reform
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