Last week the government seemed to cut back on its plans for private sector involvement in the National Health Service, after Health Secretary Alan Johnson announced that several schemes had been dumped.

Just three projects – with a combined value of around £200 million that are expected to provide 19,600 diagnostic scans and 123,000 kidney dialysis sessions per year – have given the final goahead, and seven are still being evaluated.

However, six schemes were cancelled on the basis that they would not provide value for money as the local NHS providers had successfully increased their own capacity, and the director general of the commercial directorate also advised that the contract with Care UK for diagnostic services in the West Midlands should be terminated because of its disappointing uptake rate (5%).

The cancelled schemes are: North East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire Referral Assessment Diagnostics and Treatment Service; North East Diagnostics; South East Diagnostics; Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge Electives; Cumbria and Lancashire Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service; Hampshire and Isle of Wight Electives.

The move has sparked accusations that the government is reneging on its plans for private sector involvement to boost health services, but Johnson insists that it is still committed to the initiative. “Independent sector procurement will have to meet the local needs of patients and offer sound value for money for taxpayers. Where it meets these requirements we will increase the role of the independent sector in the provision of NHS services,” he stressed.

In a written statement to the House of Commons, Johnson claimed: “The reduction in the overall size of the procurement does not represent a change in policy…we will continue to use the independent sector. However…we will now move towards greater local procurement of services. This will enable Primary Care Trusts to take procurement decisions quickly on behalf of their patients rather than waiting for a prolonged process run from Whitehall. We believe this will be a more effective route for increasing the quality of the role which the independent sector is able to provide in the NHS.”

The government hopes that the shift to more local purchasing of the independent sector after this round of procurements will speed up the process and ensure decision-making reflects local service needs.

Level playing field
To this end, the Health Secretary laid out plans for how the Department of Health will help to ensure “a level playing field” for all future NHS providers, including: the establishment of a new forum for independent sector providers to advise the Department on local procurement practice; promoting patient choice and raising awareness; and providing the NHS with new guidance about how it should work with the private and voluntary sector.

Commenting on the statement, Richard Jones, chairman of the NHS Partners Network, said: “We are naturally disappointed that the scale of the next stage of this programme is going to be smaller than originally planned”, but he welcomed the government’s “broader commitment to the involvement of the independent sector in public health provision”.

The Independent Sector Treatment Centre programme is still in its infancy and therefore needs more time to prove its value, he said, but added: “We are clear that, where implemented properly, choice works – with the independent sector working alongside GPs and PCTs to deliver real benefits for patients. The independent sector will continue to support the government’s efforts to widen choice and the range of providers, in the interests of continuing to improve public healthcare”.