It looks like the NHS has finally caught a break. A High Court ruling blocked Richard Branson’s Virgin Care from taking over children’s services in Lancashire. That’s because of the “considerable cost and disruption” it would cause the NHS.
Victory for the NHS
Last year, Virgin Care won a contract to privatise the county’s 0-19 Healthy Child Programme. The current providers of the service, Lancashire Care and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trusts, have delivered a successful legal challenge. In a victory for supporters of a public NHS, Justice Peter Fraser has suspended the outsourcing of the service to for-profit Virgin Care.
The legal challenge has overcome multiple hurdles. Conservative-led Lancashire County Council attempted to lift the suspension with a claim the services would be left unmanned if Virgin Care didn’t take over. But Fraser rejected the application because the council actually has the power to extend the current contract.
We are currently involved in a procurement process in Lancashire and it would be inappropriate for us to comment further on that process at this time
“Significant impact on the quality of healthcare”
Judge Fraser has released a detailed account of why he’s continued to block Virgin Care:
It is undoubtedly the case that lifting the automatic suspension would also result in the loss of senior staff who currently manage the full range of children’s services provided across all contracts. These are precisely the sort of effects, in my judgment, that cannot be compensated for by damages. There will be a significant impact upon the operational activities of the two Trusts, and as a result, upon the quality of healthcare generally which they provide.
“Towards a US-style insurance system”
Elsewhere, Branson’s Virgin Care has been busy buying up our NHS. In 2016/17, the Conservative government handed [pdf, p3] the corporation £1bn worth of contracts. The number of services Virgin Care provides to the NHS increased from 330 to 400 in that year.
Last year, Prof Stephen Hawking warned of the NHS becoming ‘Americanised’ through outsourcing to companies like Virgin:
We must prevent the establishment of a two-tier service, with the best medicine for the wealthy and an inferior service for the rest. International comparisons indicate that the most efficient way to provide good healthcare is for services to be publicly funded and publicly run.
We see that the direction in the UK is towards a US-style insurance system, run by the private companies, and that is because the balance of power right now is with the private companies.
International comparisons suggest Hawking is correct. In 2014, the US spent 17.1% of its GDP on healthcare without providing cover to all Americans. In the same year, the UK spent just 9.1% of its GDP on healthcare while providing universal cover. The major difference across the Atlantic is that private companies are making huge profits. Whereas if healthcare is public, money cannot be siphoned away from the service as profits.
The High Court ruling is a significant victory for those who value a public health service. NHS trusts have blocked Branson’s Virgin Care from profiting from hospitalised children. But the fight against rampant privatisation continues.
CORRECTION: This article was corrected at 1815 on 1 March. “Virgin Care will attempt to overthrow the challenge in April.” was changed to: “Lancashire County Council will attempt to overthrow the challenge in April.” and “The number of services Virgin Care provides to the NHS leapt from 230 to 400 in that year.” was changed to: “The number of services Virgin Care provides to the NHS increased from 330 to 400 in that year.”
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