Hewitt denies NHS privatisation reports

Patricia Hewitt has written to two national newspapers to deny reports that the government plans to privatise the NHS by stealth.

Mrs Hewitt says that an advert placed by the Department of Health (DH) upon which the reports were based contained “drafting errors” and had been withdrawn.

The advert in the Official Journal of European Union invited companies to apply to take over some of the roles undertaken by primary care trusts (PCTs).

The document, which ran to six pages, invited tenders for services including “general management”, “financial management” and healthcare administration, as well as asking firms to explain how their taking responsibility for buying healthcare from hospitals, clinics and charities could benefit patients.

News of the advert was reported by both The Times and The Guardian this morning, and Mrs Hewitt has written to the papers to set the record straight.

“Contrary to reports in some newspapers, there is no question whatsoever of ‘privatising’ the NHS,” she writes.

“This government is committed to a publicly-funded health service that is free at the point of use and available to all regardless of means.”

She insisted that primary care trusts “could never outsource” responsibility for their budgets or commissioning services, but added that some would like to consider buying in some management and support services.

“In order to give primary care trusts this option the DH intends to place a national framework contract with suitably qualified providers,” she wrote.

“There is no obligation on any primary care trust to use such services; each primary care trust board will make its own decision following appropriate local consultation”.

She added that the official journal document behind the report “contained drafting errors and therefore did not accurately reflect government policy, which is why it was withdrawn”.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said the government’s approach to private involvement in the NHS was “confused”.

“It is right to give private sector suppliers the opportunity to become involved in the NHS,” he said.

“But the government’s approach is confused, and there need to be clear lines of accountability.”

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Steve Webb said the reports exposed the government’s “reckless approach to health reforms”.

“Once again health policy is being changed by stealth without consultation, bypassing parliament, bypassing professionals and bypassing patients,” he said.

“These secret plans represent a fundamental shift in what the NHS is. For most people the NHS is about providing healthcare not simply buying it from the lowest bidder.”