NHS England said the deal with private hospitals would provide the “best value” for taxpayers © Curtseyes/Alamy

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Private hospitals in England will be paid up to £10bn over the next four years to treat NHS patients in a bid to relieve pressure on long waiting lists at public health centres that have been overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic.

NHS England said it would award a series of contracts to private hospital groups by November to help ease a predicted patient backlog of almost 10m by Christmas as Covid-19 has interrupted services such as elective surgery, routine screening, diagnostics and cancer treatment.

Business groups have been invited to pitch for the contracts next month. The total value of the contracts is expected to be £10bn, according to a government procurement notice.

NHS England said: “Tens of thousands more people will be able to benefit from quicker access to surgery and other procedures, as well as vital tests and checks over the coming weeks, as a result of this deal, which is good news for patients.”

It added the deal would provide the “best value” for taxpayers as the NHS moves into the next phase of its response to the pandemic by restarting some routine services while maintaining capacity to deal with new coronavirus cases. Covid-19 inpatient numbers at NHS hospitals in England have fallen from a peak of 19,000 a day to around 900 at the end of last month.

We Own It, an anti-privatisation campaign group, called the plans “staggering”. Cat Hobbs, the group’s founder, said: “Throughout the coronavirus crisis, we've already seen the government pumping bucketloads of cash into the private sector. So it is absolutely staggering that the government is planning to spend another £10bn on a deal with private hospitals. 

“After decades of underfunding and privatisation, our NHS has been fighting this pandemic with one hand tied behind its back. At this time of national crisis, it's abundantly clear that this money should be going to public health and to the NHS, not to the private sector.”

Most private hospitals had their capacity requisitioned by the government in March so they could provide care for Covid-19 patients as well as other essential surgery. A significant proportion of the 8,000 beds supplied by 26 private hospital groups, including HCA International, BMI/Circle Healthcare, Ramsay Health Care, Spire Healthcare and Care UK went largely unused as the health service coped with the surge in patients suffering from the disease in the first months of the crisis. More of the capacity has been used since mid-May as the peak of the pandemic passed in the UK.

In exchange, the government has paid all of the operating costs, including rent, interest payments and staffing to the private hospital groups. The full costs of the deal have not yet been made public, although industry sources estimated that it could be between £100m and £125m a week. That arrangement has been extended until at least the end of October, with the possibility of an extension until December, when the new agreement is expected to start.

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Spire Healthcare, one of the largest private hospital chains in Britain with 39 hospitals, said it would bid for some of the new contracts. “Spire Healthcare will now be available to support the NHS to reduce waiting lists whilst growing private activity and remains committed to focusing on its private business over the medium term,” it said.

Spire became one of the first UK companies to attract scrutiny for awarding bonus shares to its top executives during the market sell-off in April.

Ramsay Health Care, which has 34 medical facilities in the UK, said it would pitch for the NHS contracts to help reduce patient waiting lists for diagnostics. It said it had provided “critical infrastructure including people, facilities, supply chain access, medical kit and equipment and capital investment” to the NHS since the start of the pandemic.

This article has been amended to correct the number of hospitals Spire Healthcare has in Britain

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