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Published: 10 July 2008
The secret NHS talks with Virgin

Health bosses courted Branson empire in polyclinic plan

THE New Journal today reveals the first proof that Camden’s health chiefs have secretly courted private companies to run a super-size clinic at University College London Hospital.
Confidential documents show the borough’s Primary Care Trust held private talks in January with senior bosses of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire.
They show the PCT supported a deal that would mean shutting down four local practices in Bloomsbury, spiking plans to open a state-of-the-art maternity ward and transfering thousands of Camden patients on to the books of the profit-making company.
All of the services are due to come together under a new-style polyclinic – a main plank of controversial government health reforms.
It has long been feared the new polyclinics were developed with private operators in mind, but not until now has the scale of efforts to bring them in been known.
Minutes from a board meeting of Virgin Healthcare directors seen by the New Journal reveals: “They [the PCT] want to close doors of accident and emergency to all except ambulance admissions and GP referrals. They would like to see all other attendees going through the polyclinic, currently 70,000 attendances per year. This is an opportunity for us.”
Under the polyclinic model, outpatient services and local doctors’ surgeries will be merged together under one roof.
The model being proposed for UCLH is expected to close the Museum Practice, Gower Place, Gower Street and Bedford Square surgeries in Bloomsbury.
Directors at Virgin Healthcare said the UCLH polyclinic plan would transfer more than 50,000 Camden patients on to the firm’s list and would open “a whole opportunity to grow the patient list in a brand new practice”.
While Mr Branson and the Virgin Healthcare group might be seen as the perfect partners by the PCT, health chiefs will have to look elsewhere.
The meeting of Virgin’s directors at the end of January concluded “running this scale of emergency service carries serious risk” and a company spokeswoman this week told the New Journal: “Virgin Healthcare is not involved in running polyclinics. We are interested in working with NHS GPs on existing contracts. We are a start-up company and we have been meeting with as many people as possible who are in the health business. We are not involved with UCLH in any way.”
The fact Virgin were invited to talks by the PCT in the first place, however, has been seen by critics as the first concrete evidence that private companies are being primed for major roles in running the borough’s health services.
And with it has come concerns that those in charge of the new polyclinics will ultimately be answerable to shareholders rather than patients.
Dr Paddy Glackin, secretary of Camden London Medical Committees, representing Camden doctors, said: “There are a huge amount of Camden people depending on this. We all know the PCT are really keen on taking the space in the UCLH. There is nothing wrong with talking to people about providing a service – but they need to be open and honest about it.”
Dr Archana Argawal, who has been a partner at the Museum Practice since 2002, said: “Right now none of us really know what is happening – that is frustrating. What we do know is that we are in a difficult position because if we say we are not up for moving into the UCLH we may be left behind.
“Our patients may leave if a company says it will open until midnight, or if there is a shiny new building. On the other hand, patients may not want to cross a busy road or be seen by doctors working for a private company. What we can say is there is not enough communication.”
A PCT spokeswoman said the plans would soon go out for public consultation.
She added: “The PCT is currently in dialogue with a range of stakeholders and providers, including local GPs.
“A business case is being developed that has not yet been approved by the PCT Board. We do not comment on individual meetings, but would assure you that no formal procurement procedures have started.”

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