Individual NHS trusts and local GPs across the UK will be able to buy non-coronavirus check-ups, tests and operations at nearby private hospitals for the next four years, under a major new ‘pay as you go’ deal due to be unveiled within days.
The Telegraph understands the NHS is designing a £10 billion contract tender to give local trusts and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) the flexibility to quickly make use of nearby private facilities and medics where they need help reducing local backlogs and cope with a second wave of Covid-19 infections.
The new deal comes after the NHS block-booked the majority of private hospitals during the first wave of coronavirus to prevent the health service becoming overwhelmed.
Under an emergency agreement reached in March and due to expire in December, some 1.3 million NHS operations, chemotherapy sessions, tests and consultations took place in private hospitals, it can be disclosed.
In the coming days, NHS England will launch a contract tender worth up to £10 billion to allow the health service to continue to make use of private facilities to help reduce growing waiting lists over the next four years, from January.
However, rather than retaining the current NHS block-booking of private hospitals, the new deal is expected to allow individual trusts and CCGs, the local groups of GP surgeries, to pay for services as they need them – which is intended to provide ‘locally tailored’ help and better value for money than the emergency deal struck in March.
For example, an NHS hospital attempting to reduce its waiting list for urgent hip and knee replacements could pay a local private hospital to take over the cases of dozens or even hundreds of patients, at a fixed rate per person. The shift will also allow independent hospitals to resume much of the fee-paying work they were carrying out before the start of the pandemic.
An NHS spokesman said: “Hundreds of thousands of people have already been able to benefit from quicker and safe access to tests, checks and treatments as a result of the unprecedented deal with independent hospitals, and the additional capacity has played a key role in the NHS’s efforts which have seen routine surgery numbers more than double since the peak of the virus.
“As the NHS prepares for winter and a potential second wave of Covid, this new framework will give local GPs and leaders the flexibility to maintain these benefits for their patients, while delivering best value for the taxpayer.”
David Hare, chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Provider Network, said: “We would see it as a slight shift in emphasis for the next set of arrangements, away from being a catch-all, available for whatever comes.
“That was the reality back in back in March, but with a focus on potentially needing to treat Covid patients based on epidemiological modelling.
“Now the focus is on recovering the position for routine procedures, whilst also having provisions available, should they be needed, to treat Covid patients, if that was necessary and the NHS couldn’t cope.”
New figures show the NHS used private hospitals for 200,000 operations and procedures, 38,000 chemotherapy sessions, 270,000 tests and scans, and 840,000 consultations.
The framework agreement is intended to allow GPs and hospitals to make use of private hospitals to carry out services including tests, scans, urgent operations and cancer treatment.
On Saturday, Professor Rupert Pearse, an intensive care consultant at the Royal London hospital in East London, said that many NHS hospitals were preparing for a second peak “of around two thirds of the Covid numbers we saw in the spring.”
“We can keep many routine services going at that level albeit at reduced capacity,” he added.