Health secretary Alan Milburn has signed a ‘concordat’ with the independent healthcare sector, allowing the NHS to use spare private sector beds.
This is the first time the relationship between public and private health sectors has been put on such a formal footing. It is expected to end years of ideological barriers between the two.
Entitled, For the benefit of patients, the agreement will allow the NHS to treat patients more quickly by using spare private sector capacity.
People will remain NHS patients, however, and the government says this move is consistent with the principles of the NHS – a service based on clinical need rather than ability to pay.
At present, the NHS pays around £1bn for the use of private facilities, and this figure will rise sharply under the new agreement. Current government plans are to use the private sector for non-urgent operations and intermediate care, such as beds for the elderly after hospital treatment.
The timing of this move means the extra private sector beds will be available in the event of another flu crisis this winter.
But the agreement has angered hard-line Labour supporters, who have described this partnership as privatising the NHS by the back door. Many believe that the private sector has always undermined the concept of state healthcare.
Milburn said: “This agreement has been made solely in the interest of the NHS. Treatment will remain free at the point of delivery, whether delivered by a NHS hospital, a local GP, a private sector hospital or voluntary organisation.
“As a result of this agreement, more people will be able to benefit from treatment paid for by the NHS.”