Is the NHS for sale?

Published: 16 December 2015

The future of the NHS is one of the most debated topics in the news. NHS Trusts in England have, according to BBC News, racked up a £930m deficit in the first three months of the financial year - that is more than the entire overspend last year. Many new initiatives, including the five year forward plan, aim to change parts of the health service, but it still leaves us with the unanswered question of ‘what  is the future  of the NHS?’ With the introduction of NHS Improvement, one of the first tasks set for new Chief Executive Jim Mackey is to ensure the provider sector achieves financial balance in 2016 to 2017. This will be supported by George Osborne’s decision to front-load £3.8bn of the £8.4bn promised to relieve financial pressures. Is the private sector help the helping hand the NHS so desperately need?

Many sectors define privatisation differently; such as selling off resources, but within the UK health service it is most commonly referred to as ‘outsourcing contracts’.  Circle became the first private company to run Hinchingbrooke Health Care NHS Trust but withdrew their contract just three years into the  ten year contract. Although this was ultimately an unsuccessful experiment, Virgin Care has recently won a £64 million contract to run community child health services in Wiltshire. It can be argued that by further privatising services we are working towards the wholesale loss of the NHS, despite the government discouraging this idea. Is the NHS slowly being privatised or is this the commercial market picking up the slack on services where the NHS can’t meet demand?

The NHS is on course for an annual deficit of at least £2bn, in what regulators describe as its worst financial crisis in a generation, claims The Guardian. This poses the question; ‘can outsourcing contracts continue to be the way forward?’ In many cases, outsourcing services can deliver the best service and outcomes for patients but it is not a one size fits all model. Serco has a great reputation delivering outsourcing solutions, however within the last twelve months has withdrawn from delivering clinical health services in the UK, following a review of the cost of delivering improved service levels and meeting the performance requirements. It may be difficult to predict the growth of non-NHS providers of care, outsourcing services does seem to offer a solution. It can alleviate financial pressure on acute trusts and those struggling to meet demand. 

Whilst part privatisation has many benefits on the wider economy, we need to understand whether it only provides the commercial market with financial validity or whether it does in fact compromise patient care.

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