Coronavirus Pandemic Reveals the Fragility of a Private Health Industry on the Rocks

Recently the government made a deal with private health firms to the tune of £2.4 million per day for the use of their facilities. While it is of utmost importance to the government and the public that facilities are acquired to deal with current pandemic, questions have been raised over the relative value for money and the justification for the deal.

For the taxpayers’ £2.4 million, the NHS is set to benefit from the addition of approximately 10,000 nurses, 700 doctors and an increase of eight per cent in available beds, only 160 of which are intensive care. Whilst these provisions are no doubt beneficial to strained NHS services to put these figures into scale the recently opened Nightingale Hospital in London’s Excel arena has 500 intensive care beds available immediately with a further 3,500 soon to follow.

This being only the beginning and with six further Nightingale hospitals planned across the country, their potential capacity dwarfs the private health contributions in scale and especially value for money. Therefore, we must really ask ourselves whether the private health contract was really due to capacity. 

Research by the Centre for Health and the Public Interest has recently revealed that, based on the accounts for 2017/18 going into this crisis four of the largest hospital providers (Spire, BMI, Nuffield and Ramsay) have an average gearing (total debt/equity) of over 300 per cent This has resulted in their businesses becoming completely economically unviable as routine and non-emergency treatments are put on hold and doctors within the private health sector, usually working in public and private hospitals simultaneously, are requisitioned full-time within the NHS. That is, until the government stepped in, to hand over a sizeable daily cheque to these private health firms for beds the NHS do not really need and doctors they already had.

While this may be disregarded as government incompetence, which has recently been in far too large supply, the extent of overlapping financial interests of high-ranking Tory MPs and advisors with private health firms seems extremely suspect. 

Beginning with, chief advisor to Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, whose CV includes an advisory role at software and artificial intelligence firm Babylon Health. Babylon has a history of beneficial treatment from NHS backing, including an instance when an app, developed for GPs, created by the company, was publicly endorsed by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock. More recently the Department of Health have ear marked an eye watering £250 million in government contracts for the use of AI within the NHS to be contracted out to private health firms; services Babylon will no doubt be only too happy to oblige.

Whilst ostensibly Babylon’s purpose is “to put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on earth” in a report from Wired magazine “the presence of Babylon’s GP surgery in London has forced the NHS to reallocate millions of pounds in funding to mitigate for the disruption it has caused.”

We come secondly to Matt Hancock, who has, amongst his astonishing five pages of the ‘Register of Members’ Financial Interests’, recieved a donation of £10,000 for his leadership campaign fund, from Mr Wol Kolade, Managing Partner at venture capital and private equity firm LivingBridge. With investments in various companies, including private health care, which have in recent years donated over £460,000 to the Conservative Party. 

While these interests are not conclusive proof of back-room dealings in the case of the recent Coronavirus government contract, let there be no doubt, the Tories do not merely personally benefit but are ideologically driven to strive for full privatisation of our NHS, and now at time of greatest need, their undermining tactics are laid bare. The private health industry cannot be seen to be an unviable alternative and so have been granted a substantial cash injection to tide them over the pandemic, which would otherwise have seen them off.

By George Sullivan

History and History of Art student Uni of Nottingham // Nottingham Labour Students Co Chair //

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