Private firms have been handed almost £15bn in NHS contracts over the past five years, figures show.
The value of contracts given to non-NHS providers, mainly profit-driven firms but also including some social enterprises, has soared by 89% since 2015, from £1.9bn to £3.6bn a year.
The figures cast doubt on the claim to MPs by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, in January that “there is no privatisation of the NHS on my watch” and repeated Conservative denials during the election campaign that the NHS is “up for sale”.
Labour has repeatedly raised the issue of creeping privatisation of NHS care during the election campaign, including the prospect that a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal could allow American healthcare firms to expand their provision of services to patients. The Conservatives have denied that.
Care UK and Richard Branson’s Virgin Care have been the biggest winners among private sector firms that have benefited from the increase.
Care UK has won 17 contracts worth a total of £731m since 2015 and Virgin Care has picked up 13 contracts worth £579m over the same period, according to figures which the government contract data specialists Tussell collated for the GMB union.
Virgin’s haul includes a seven-year £270m contract agreed in 2017 to provide care for people with long-term conditions in east Staffordshire as part of the local NHS’s “improving lives” programme.
“These shocking figures expose the extent to which our NHS is increasingly falling into private hands,” said Rehana Azam, the GMB’s national secretary. “NHS services should be provided in the public interest, not for private profit.”
However, the single biggest contract went to a social enterprise rather than a for-profit firm. The NHS clinical commissioning group in Bristol, north Somerset and south Gloucestershire gave Sirona care & health, a community interest company, a £1.05bn contract to provide adult community health services in those areas.
Seven of the 10 largest value contracts over the past five years have involved the delivery of healthcare to patients. But the other three involved operational support for NHS trusts.
St Helens and Knowsley hospital trust agreed a £500m private finance initiative extension with HCP Social Infrastructure. The Bristol and Weston NHS Purchasing Consortium struck a £290m deal with Pearce Brothers for car rental and maintenance. And Guy’s and St Thomas’ trust in London handed a £224m contract for postal services to Swiss Post Solutions.
Tussell’s research shows how private firms and social enterprises won £1.9bn of NHS contracts in 2015 but that rose to £3bn in 2016 and again to £3.6bn last year. Such non-NHS providers have already agreed contracts for £3.3bn of services, it found.
The Guardian revealed in July that private firms won a total of £9.2bn in NHS contracts in 2018-19.
Three of the 10 biggest-value NHS contracts awarded since 2015 have gone to community interest companies. Social Enterprise UK, which represents social enterprise providers, defended their role. It said that social enterprises “are legally obliged to focus on delivering their social mission, not on profit. Any surplus generated is reinvested back into patient care and preventative action.”
It is “unfair” to bracket social enterprises alongside the likes of Virgin Care, a spokesperson for Social Enterprises UK said. Social enterprises generally earn a higher rating than private firms from the care quality commission, the health and care regulator in England, it added.
David Hare, the chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, which represents many private sector providers, said: “These figures represent just 3% of annual NHS spending and reflect a longstanding policy of successive governments to secure the best available care for NHS patients whether from the public, private or voluntary sector.
“What matters to NHS patients is not tired arguments about non-existent ‘NHS privatisation’ but that their NHS care is high quality and free at the point of use.”