NHS hospitals have been ordered to hand over large rafts of their operations to the private sector in order to ease a looming winter crisis, leaked memos show.
Health officials have also instructed hospitals to discharge thousands of patients in a bid to reduce record levels of crowding, while managers have been banned from declaring “black alerts”.
NHS trusts have been told to take a series of measures to dramatically reduce bed occupancy levels in an attempt to ensure that wards can cope as pressures mount.
In reaction to the news, patients groups have described the situation was “frightening”.
Meanwhil,e charities consider the measures to be an “extremely worrying” reflection of a system under “extraordinary pressure”.
Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the British Medical Association, commented that “this is evidence of an over-stretched healthcare system that the government has failed to properly fund, which must outsource patient care to private providers to cope with predictable patient demand. Unmanageable pressures are now facing the NHS all year round, winter or not, and this has been made worse by cuts to social care provision”.
There is already considerable concern about bed-blocking and the capacity of the NHS system over the critical and challenging winter months.
Thus, hospital trusts will be ordered to take drastic action in order to reduce occupancy down to what is considered a safe limit of 85%.
But the heavy use of the private sector advocated by the scheme will almost certainly increase financial pressures on the NHS.
Measures noted include farming planned surgery out to the private sector, and discharging patients earlier.
“These plans will have to have full regard to both elective targets and financial delivery, as such systems will be expected to maximise activity either side of the period in an affordable way and where necessary using waiting list initiatives and the independent sector to ensure that elective throughput is not adversely affected,” the memo states.
Tim Farron, Lib Dem leader, was also critical of the plans.
“Using the private sector like this, on this scale only runs down the NHS and will cost the taxpayer more in the long run. The NHS needs more cash and this government are trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes by pretending otherwise.”
However, despite the controversy, NHS leaders will defend the scheme, considering the climate resulting from the £2.5 billion deficit accumulated by NHS trusts during the most recent financial year.
And an NHS England spokesman attempted to defend the plans.
“Anyone who needs to be in hospital or in another care setting over Christmas, will be. Our ambition to reduce bed occupancy in hospitals over the festive period is about timely discharge and getting people to the most appropriate care setting ahead of the holidays, so there is capacity for early January when we know pressure is greatest.”