The NHS has been ordered to “turbo-charge” use of the private sector to help clear record waiting lists.
A Downing Street summit on Wednesday will work on plans to maximise use of all available hospital capacity – regardless of who provides it – as pressures on the NHS mount.
Patients will increasingly be offered surgery hundreds of miles away in an expansion of schemes that have seen NHS patients in Devon offered knee and hip operations at private hospitals in Surrey.
A new taskforce, bringing together independent hospital leaders and NHS officials, will examine how to significantly expand use of the private sector and give patients more choice over where they receive treatment.
It comes amid record waiting lists, with more than seven million people waiting for treatment.
The taskforce, set up on the orders of Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, aims to emulate the success of the Covid vaccine taskforce in deploying the private sector to speed up reform.
Its first meeting will see industry leaders, NHS officials and independent experts examine how to maximise use of all capacity to “slash” waiting lists and eliminate 18-month waits by next April.
Steve Barclay, the Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “The NHS is facing an unprecedented challenge to tackle Covid backlogs.
“Hard-working staff have made strong progress, but I want to turbo-charge our current plans to bust the backlog and help patients get the treatment they need. The taskforce will look at sensible steps to utilise all existing capacity to slash waiting lists while ensuring the NHS always remains free at the point of use.”
It comes after Labour drew up proposals to give the public a constitutional right to free healthcare. The plans were championed by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, who said the NHS needs to be permanently protected from “hostile” Tories who have put access to free healthcare “under threat”.
Whitehall sources said private hospitals would receive the same payment as the NHS for contracts fulfilled, contrasting it with deals delivered under the last Labour government, which saw premium rates paid to the independent sector.
The new government taskforce will focus on expanding the use of private sector beds, operating theatres and other settings, such as outpatient clinics, for use by NHS patients.
Private hospital groups have repeatedly told how they have offered to help the NHS bring down waiting lists but have remained under-used.
The latest figures show that private hospitals and clinics are providing around six per cent of NHS care, delivering around 450,000 appointments in October.
Initiatives to cut the longest waits have seen NHS patients in Devon sent for hip and knee replacements in private hospitals in Southampton and Woking, funded by the health service.
‘Using all the capacity available’
Will Quince, the health minister, who will chair the taskforce, said: “We are relentlessly focused on tackling waiting lists and busting the Covid backlogs, and this new taskforce will bring together experts from across the healthcare system.
“Doing so will ensure we’re using all the capacity available to us to improve care across the NHS and independent sector, and give patients more autonomy over when and where they are treated.”
During the pandemic, private hospitals were block booked under a national NHS contract aiming to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and limit cancellations of planned treatment. However, despite this, the majority of capacity in place during the summer of 2020 went unused.
Sir James Mackey, the NHS England national director of elective recovery, said: “NHS staff are working incredibly hard to tackle the Covid backlog at a time of immense pressure on the health service, with significant progress already made – virtually eliminating two-year waits for care – and it’s vital that we continue to support staff to deliver for patients.
“By maximising opportunities to deliver even more life-saving checks and tests, building on the successes of increasing use of the independent sector since the pandemic, we can speed up diagnoses and continue to bring down waiting lists for routine care.”
David Hare, the chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, said: “We strongly welcome the establishment of a new taskforce to look at how the NHS can turbo-charge its use of the independent sector to tackle the elective care backlog.”
He said use of the private sector had been a big factor in cutting waiting times in the 2000s, urging the group to learn lessons from that period.