Virgin has become the first private firm in the country to run adult social care after being handed a controversial £700m deal by a Tory-led council.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Care is poised to take control of more than 200 NHS services, after Bath and North East Somerset councillors voted late last week in favour of the seven year contract despite passionate opposition.
It is the first time that a for-profit company has taken control of social services, with campaigners warning that it is the first step on the sell off of the NHS.
“Make no mistake about it, what has happened here is the beginning of the privatisation of the NHS in this country,” Local councillor Eleanor Jackson told the Daily Mirror.
“The Tories have let us all down and everyone should be horrified about this decision. Woe betide you getting ill in this area if you are old, disabled or have learning difficulties in the next seven years. It is just a horrifying decision.”
The move follows an accusation last month by Labour MP Paula Sherriff that Virgin had made needless “double appointments” costing more than £100 each for minor surgical procedures, since it began running a West Yorkshire NHS dermatology service she used to work at.
Sherriff has accused Virgin of unethical practises and plans to raise Virgin’s move into social care in Parliament.
She said, “I worry that an area as complex as adult social care presents opportunities for the system to be gamed by private interests at the expense of some of the most vulnerable in society, as well as the public purse.”
Virgin Care was also subject of controversy in 2014 after the Care Quality Commission found that the company had endangered patients when it ran Croydon’s Urgent Care Centre. The regulator said the centre had breached four basic care standards.
Bath and North East Somerset Council said contract was granted following the recommendations “of a wide range of service users, carers and subject matter experts who have dedicated hundreds of hours to scrutinising the bids and really understand how services need to change.”
A Virgin Care spokesperson said that the company has been “providing community health and care services for a decade, working with a range of partners to look after more than a million people a year.”
A clause in the contract has also been added that means financial surpluses will be put back into services, the council said.
But Unite national officer for health, Sarah Carpenter, questioned how such a clause would work given that Virgin had to produce a profit.
She said, “It makes no sense at all to say surpluses will go back into services when the only reason Virgin is involved in this venture is to make profits.
“You can bet that Virgin’s perspective of a surplus will differ radically from the tax payers. Any money that is saved, probably on the back of cost cutting, will be expected to go back to Virgin Care’s shareholders.
“This is what the Tory vision of healthcare in this country looks like: Vital NHS services sold off to companies whose primary motivation is money. It’s bad for staff, bad for patients and bad for the country. We need a government that treasures the NHS, not one that trashes it.”