Richard Branson's company won a legal battle against a cash-strapped health service - over a tendering process we never should have had.
When offering advice to budding entrepreneurs, Richard Branson is keen to talk up the importance of building a good reputation. The Virgin boss says: “all you have in business is your reputation – make sure you can sleep soundly at night.”
Good advice – it just reeks of hypocrisy coming from a multi-billionaire who has seemingly gone out of his way to toxify the Virgin brand he in recent years.
From revelling in his personal and professional attempts to avoid paying tax in the UK, to smearing the leader of the Labour Party (thereby deflecting criticism of his train service), and from wading into the EU referendum debate unwanted to buying up and closing down NHS services across the UK – the brand is not looking good.
Now, the response to these incidents might have varied depending on how you cast your vote in the EU referendum or the General Election. But Branson’s latest scandal is likely to universally appal, regardless of political affiliation.
Just a few days ago, his company was successful in suing the NHS over a tendering battle – reportedly leaving a cash-strapped Clinical Commissioning Group with financial liabilities running to hundreds of thousands of pounds.
To trace back the roots of this scandal, we have to go back to the Coalition government. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in power pushed through the Health and Social Care Act 2012. One of the most singularly damaging pieces of legislation brought in in the last decade, the act has forced an increasingly fragmented and marketised internal structure on the NHS.
It is in this marketised environment that the predatory Virgin Care arm of Branson’s empire has thrived, as hospitals are pressured to overlook in-house NHS providers in favour of private healthcare companies. Currently, the firm is thought to hold well over £2 billion worth of contracts with our NHS.
But that is not enough for Branson. When the NHS in Surrey ran the tendering process for a contract to provide £82 million worth of children’s services – an expensive procedure forced on them by the Health and Social Care Act – it concluded that a consortium of mainly in-house NHS providers was best placed to provide the best care for patients.
The NHS awarded an NHS contract to NHS providers – arguably in the best interests of patients. Virgin Care, who bid against NHS providers for the contract, however, took issue with Surrey NHS bosses’ decision.
Virgin Care didn’t take their failure to win the contract as a judgement on the way they operated the services they already ran in Surrey. Instead, they stayed true to Richard Branson’s business motto of “failure is only the end if you decide to stop.” Branson’s healthcare firm didn’t stop. Instead, it rejected the Surrey’s conclusions and launched a bitter bid to sue our taxpayer-funded NHS.
That legal dispute was resolved out of court this week, with at least £328,000 being handed over to Virgin Care. The figure only came to light because Surrey Downs NHS, just one of the six Surrey Clinical Commissioning Groups Virgin Care were suing, accidentally published their ‘liability’ in the case. Well-informed campaigners close to the case assure me the full settlement is expected to cost taxpayers more than £2 million pounds.
We aren’t likely to ever know the true cost, however, because Virgin Care and the NHS in Surrey have sworn themselves to secrecy – despite taxpayers footing the bill and the details of the case being very much in the public interest.
At best, £328,000 worth of patient care has just evaporated from Surrey NHS budgets because healthcare managers refused to roll over for the government’s favoured fat cats.
At the same time, Tory Ministers are starving our NHS of resources: the service hasn’t seen funding levels so low since the 1950s. The cash handed over to Virgin is desperately needed in Surrey, as it is across the county, to treat the patients that are already suffering from the government’s ideological attacks on our health service. In Surrey, for example, children are being forced to wait for months for mental health support.
And Branson’s latest scandal is only set to make the situation far worse. This case will give Virgin Care and other private healthcare firms license to threaten NHS trusts across the country with legal action if they don’t get their own way.
Thanks to the Tories and Lib Dems, we have an NHS now forced to serve the markets, rather than being free to serve their patients.
And thanks to Richard Branson, we have predatory firms like Virgin Care ready to exploit the situation for profit while patients suffer.
We must stop the decline: it is time for politicians and the public to get behind the cross-party campaign to restore our NHS as a fully funded, truly public health service.
Keith Taylor is the Green Party MEP for South East England.
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