Evidence that the government plans to extend the privatisation of the NHS emerged last week, just as health secretary Alan Johnson was telling the media that many private contracts were to be withdrawn.
Health chiefs have drawn up plans to let supermarkets and phone companies run GP services under a “McDonald’s-style” franchise.
Now companies like Virgin, Asda and Tesco are likely to clamour for a piece of the NHS pie.
Health officials in Birmingham have drawn up a strategy in which 76 surgeries would merge into 24 units, run on franchises that could be awarded to private sector companies with no experience in health.
The doctors would become employees of the corporations.
Dr Robert Morley, a family doctor and a member of the British Medical Association’s GP Committee, described the proposals by Heart of Birmingham primary care trust as “the most frightening document I’ve ever read”.
He said that by borrowing ideas from the fast food sector, the NHS would end up “peddling junk healthcare”.
The report’s author, Sarb Barsi, said the NHS “can learn a lot from companies like McDonald’s”.
This attempt to expand privatisation is being matched in London where the strategic health authority plans to spend £15 million “consulting” the public about government plans for polyclincs.
These new centres, which will combine GP surgeries with services normally provided by district general hospitals, are likely to be built, serviced and staffed under a range of privatisation schemes.
Nevertheless the drive to privatise the health service hit problems last week when it emerged that the department of health had been forced to slash NHS contracts with the private sector in half as it became clear that they did not offer “value for money”.
It was originally planned that private companies would win contracts to run independent treatment and diagnostic centres valued at around £6 billion, but that figure has been cut in half.
One long-planned private centre that has been axed was to be sited in Preston.
A strong local campaign – involving health unions, Respect, and many in the local community – appears to have frightened the health secretary into a retreat.
Michael Lavalette, local Respect councillor and campaign co-ordinator, said, “We are utterly opposed to handing over public money for public services to private companies run for profit.
“Consultation by our primary care trust showed overwhelming opposition to their proposals. Now the government has been forced to agree.”
Independent treatment centres were introduced in 2004, with the government claiming that they would bring “private sector efficiency” to the NHS, and benefit both taxpayers and patients.
However evidence that the centres are unwanted, inefficient and expensive is undermining this case.
It was revealed last week that a centre in the West Midlands, operated by the private firm Care UK, is running with only 5 percent of its capacity being used. It has been forced to close.
Debbie Turner, Preston Unison union health branch secretary, said, “We are delighted at the news – but it opens up big questions.
“The government has spent £84 million so far on these schemes and their legal and procurement costs. This would have been much better spent on real patient care.”
The government’s climbdown over independent treatment centres show just how vulnerable it is to public pressure.
Activists must ensure that wherever health privatisation raises its head, it is met with well-organised public campaigns.