Private firms tasked with helping NHS during the Covid pandemic pocketed £72million in furlough

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Private healthcare firms contracted to help the NHS battle the pandemic pocketed millions of pounds in furlough cash while recording bumper profits, it was revealed today.

Health chiefs signed a series of contracts with private hospital operators worth over £2billion during the first year of Covid to ease the burden of the crisis.

Yet the companies delivered less than 0.1 per cent of the nation’s virus care and took on fewer NHS patients than in the previous year, according to the Centre for Health and the Public Interest (CHPI).

MPs last night called on the multi-billion pound companies involved to pay back the £72million furlough support they shared. 

But private hospitals today insisted only staff who weren’t able to work and could not be used in the war on Covid were furloughed.

The independent sector has previously criticised the health service for failing to take advantage of its willingness to help.

Ministers struck a deal so that private healthcare facilities can be used to help tackle the pandemic-fueled record backlog of patients waiting for routine operations, such as hip and knee replacements.

In a letter sent to Downing St officials, trade association the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN) admitted every day staffed capacity ‘which could be made available to treat NHS patients is going unused’.

NHS bosses – who have started cancelling operations again because of Omicron and rising staff absences – insisted that trusts work ‘very closely’ with independent firms.

Healthcare companies took £72million in furlough support - Ramsay Health Care (poster pictured) claimed £525,000 despite receiving £385million from the NHS

Healthcare companies took £72million in furlough support – Ramsay Health Care (poster pictured) claimed £525,000 despite receiving £385million from the NHS

The letter, leaked to the The Daily Telegraph in October, prompted the Department of Health to say: ‘We expect trusts to make full use of available capacity.’

The original copy, written by the IHPN’s chief executive David Hare, welcomed extra funding to help trusts ‘deliver higher levels of activity’, as part of a £10billion deal.

But it added: ‘Many NHS systems are struggling to meet the challenge of achieving higher utilisation of independent sector capacity.

‘This means that every day, staffed independent sector capacity which could be made available to treat NHS patients is going unused.’

Yet health service insiders last winter accused the private sector of ‘taking the p*** and walking off with the money’.

The Health Service Journal, a trade publication for health chiefs, reported that some within the NHS ‘expressed the view’ that the private industry needed to be ‘shamed’ into providing more help.

Meanwhile, the thinktank behind the new furlough report previously admitted the under-utilisation of the private sector was unsurprising because of its reliance on NHS staff.

Sid Ryan, who authored the CHPI’s earlier review in October, claimed the issue ‘begs the question: why then did the Government agree to this generous deal?’.

The CHPI’s new analysis of HM Revenue and Customs figures revealed private health bodies collected as much as £72million in furlough support – enough to pay the salaries of more than 2,000 nurses.

The NHS paid HCA Healthcare as much as £190million in the pandemic, but the firm also claimed furlough money worth up to £3million.

Accounts show the US parent company increased its profit margin nearly 40 per cent to £7billion. Australian firm Ramsay Health Care claimed up to £525,000 despite receiving £385million from the NHS.

The company’s income increased 15 per cent last year and its profit margin rose 13 per cent to £100million.

The pandemic has led to soaring profits and increased revenues for these companies at a time when the NHS is on its knees and waiting lists are growing by the day (stock image)

The pandemic has led to soaring profits and increased revenues for these companies at a time when the NHS is on its knees and waiting lists are growing by the day (stock image)

Lincolnshire hospitals declare staffing emergency and warn Omicron-fuelled crisis has ‘compromised care’

Hospitals in Lincolnshire have declared a staffing emergency amid Omicron-fuelled absences — as the NHS draws up plans to recruit reservists to help ease winter pressures.

United Lincolnshire Hospitals warned in leaked documents that so many doctors and nurses were now absent from shifts that care was ‘compromised’, especially for stroke and heart patients.

The trust — which runs four major hospitals in the county — had 7.5 per cent of employees, or 643 out of 8,500, off sick on December 26, including 150 who were absent due to Covid.

Yesterday it declared a ‘critical incident’, meaning hospital bosses are calling in support from nearby trusts to help manage the crisis.

It comes amid mounting concerns over a staffing crisis in the NHS 110,000 employees — or one in ten — off sick due to the virus in late December, including 50,000 suffering from Covid. Trusts have been told to brace for one in four being absent.

But former vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi sought to calm concerns today, saying the NHS could get through the crisis because it was ‘very good’ at redeploying staff to the frontlines.

The now-Education Secretary told BBC Breakfast: ‘The NHS is very good at being able to move staff around within the system. They now have an infrastructure to do that.

‘(The NHS) is very good at sort of making sure that staff shortages are monitored and dealt with pretty well. They’ve done it over many years in winter when we’ve been, you know, had big flu viruses around.’

NHS trusts are already drawing up plans to deal with staffing crises and pressures from the virus over the winter months.

Several — including trusts in London, Yorkshire and Essex — have now banned visitors for patients, with some saying Covid transmission on their wards had been linked to people visiting patients.

Sajid Javid has also revealed plans for clinical and non-clinical staff to be recruited into a thousands-strong reservist force for the NHS to call on over the winter months and periods of high pressure.

CHPI director David Rowland said: ‘It is increasingly clear that the mainly foreign-owned private hospital sector in the UK has the appearance of having gamed the pandemic to its advantage.

‘They have received billions of pounds out of the NHS budget to cover their operating costs, while being required to provide very little support for the NHS in return and have furloughed staff to reduce their wage bills.

‘This has led to soaring profits and increased revenues for these companies at a time when the NHS is on its knees and waiting lists are growing by the day.’

Aspen Healthcare also claimed £800,000 while it took £55million from the health service. The London-based firm’s accounts for 2020 show its revenue increased from £83million to £89million, while it made £5.7million profit.

Labour MP Stella Creasy said: ‘This is companies using our NHS as a cashpoint because of Covid. The furlough scheme was meant to keep businesses from going bust.

‘Some of these guys have made billions in profit. There are businesses on their knees this Christmas because of Omicron.

‘These health firms have to play their part and pay back public money they were given to stop them going out of business.

‘For any responsible business committed to the NHS, this is the least they could do.’

UK medical giant Nuffield Health, a not-for-profit charity, claimed the bulk of the furlough cash, collecting £64.5million despite taking more than £224million from the NHS.

Only UK firm Spire Healthcare has repaid £220,000 it received.

In total, more than 1.3million firms claimed £70billion in furlough support to 11.1million workers’ wages. To date, £1.3billion has been paid back. Not all of the private companies on a NHS pandemic contract claimed furlough.

Sara Gorton, head of health at trade union Unison, said: ‘During times of crisis, everyone needs to pull together for the greater good. Returning money to the Exchequer would be the right thing to do.’

The Treasury would not say whether the Chancellor had asked any health firms for money back.

A spokesman said: ‘Furlough provided a lifeline to more than a million businesses across the UK and protected nearly 12million jobs, with businesses passing all the money they received from the scheme on to employees.’

A HCA Healthcare spokesman said: ‘We furloughed some of the team whose roles did not directly impact patient safety or the delivery of care to patients.

‘We used furlough on a partial and temporary basis and limited its use to where it was necessary.’

Aspen said it used furlough to protect the jobs of a small number of staff, adding: ‘We delivered thousands of outpatient clinics, diagnostic scans and time-critical operations to NHS patients.’

Nuffield Health said curbs forced its fitness and wellbeing centres to close, impacting 6,000 of its 16,000 staff. It added these workers were furloughed ‘to support the charity’s financial sustainability and protect the jobs of our people’.    



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