The latest research from Laing & Buisson, which has been reported in the Financial Times, has shown that private hospitals are now earning more than a quarter of their income from treating NHS patients – findings that will surely throw fuel on the fiery argument over the role of the private sector in the NHS. But they also underline the scale of the problems facing NHS trusts up and down the country.
The headlines of recent days will make unpleasant reading for Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Fears have been aired that A&E units will crack under the demands placed on them during the peak winter months. A new report has warned that the NHS is short of 20,000 nurses and suggested that trusts are not filling vacant posts in order to save money. And maternity services have been revealed to be spending chunks of their budgets on negligence cover.
That private hospitals are now taking on far greater numbers of NHS procedures and treatments (as demonstrated by the increase in the amount of revenue they are generating from NHS patients) doesn’t just highlight the role of the private sector in the new NHS. It underlines the pressures on the health service, which is having to hand procedures and patients over to private hospitals by virtue of not being able to rely on its own resources.
The scale of the challenge facing Jeremy Hunt over the winter should not be underestimated. The Health Secretary has a mountain to climb if he is to instil confidence in the public that the NHS can make it through its busiest time of year, whilst also undergoing further fundamental changes in service delivery to ensure a seven day health service – and being hamstrung by the ramifications of defeat in his legal battle on the future of Lewisham Hospital, which could affect service reconfigurations across the country. Failure could seriously undermine the Conservatives’ health credentials in the run-up to 2015 and will surely spark renewed criticism of the biggest overhaul in NHS history.