NHS fails to make use of private hospitals to clear Covid backlog

·3 min read
Sajid Javid at a hospital
Sajid Javid at a hospital

NHS trusts are failing to involve private hospitals in coronavirus recovery plans against official guidance, it has emerged, as providers claim they could treat 400,000 extra patients a year.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, told the health service in February that private providers had a “significant role to play” in reducing waiting lists.

Some 6.4 million patients are now waiting to start hospital treatment, according to official figures - about one in 10 of the population.

Local healthcare systems were told to include private sector capacity as part of their planning and to “work in partnership with independent sector partners to maximise activity to reduce waiting times sustainably”.

But a poll of providers representing 150 individual sites across England found one in four have not been involved in any planning discussions for 2022-23.

Of those that have had discussions, only one-fifth have signed off on plans to work with the NHS for the next year, according to the survey carried out by the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN).

Almost a third - 29 per cent - of those that have been involved in discussions have been asked to treat fewer patients than before the pandemic, according to the survey, while 23 per cent have been asked to provide slightly more activity than 2019-20.

Danger of 'lost year' for tackling NHS waiting lists

The Government previously announced a “Build Back Better” plan for health and social care, which included a £9 billion funding commitment to tackle the elective backlog.

The plan claimed the NHS could deliver 30 per cent more elective activity by 2024-25, including through new surgical hubs working with the private sector.

Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said in March that patients waiting more than 18 months could be offered treatment in a private hospital.

But the IHPN claimed that the poll showed the NHS in many areas has asked the private sector to treat no more patients than before the pandemic.

Estimates by the trade association suggested NHS procedures carried out by private providers dropped by six per cent between 2019 and 2021, from 1,297,356 to 1,220,072.

Private hospitals could deliver 130 per cent of pre-pandemic activity, the IHPN suggested, representing an additional 389,207 completed procedures a year.

David Hare, chief executive of the IHPN, said: “With NHS waiting lists at record levels and the public paying more through their taxes for the health system, it’s vital that the NHS pulls out all the stops to ensure patients can access the care they need.

“While the Government and NHS England have made welcome commitments to increasing the use of independent sector capacity to tackle the backlog, these new figures show this is simply not translating into action on the ground.”

Mr Hare added there was a “real risk” that 2022 was becoming a "lost year" in which NHS waiting lists keep growing, while independent sector capacity goes unused.

An NHS spokesman said: “Independent sector use in the NHS is 15 per cent higher than before the pandemic and while it’s not a surprise that providers say they want more contracts, local plans – which are still being developed - will ensure that private sector use is significantly above pre-pandemic levels.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “The independent sector has been used extensively throughout the pandemic and has played a hugely important role – sharing access to private hospital staff, equipment, facilities and diagnostics, as well as providing additional capacity to support the rise in Covid cases due to the omicron variant.

“We are making extensive use of the independent sector to tackle the Covid backlog, as set out in the recovery plan.”

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