Support for the increasing involvement of the private sector to keep UK healthcare afloat seems to be growing amongst MPs, suggest findings of a new survey conducted by COMRES for BMI Healthcare.

Interestingly, the poll of 150 MPs indicates an age divide when it comes to opinion on the future of private sector involvement in National Health Service operations, with 72% of ministers born before 1950 believing that the current model of free healthcare at the point of delivery is sustainable for the next 60 years, compared to just 42% of those born after 1960.

Furthermore, there seem to geographical differences in opinion too, with 82% of MPs from the North confident that the current NHS model can survive versus 52% in the South.

However, when it comes to the principle of leaning on the private sector to help the health service cope with the growing pressure on its resources, it seems the three main parties are actually largely in consensus, with 77% of Conservatives, 47% of Labour and 55% of the Liberal Democrats agreeing that the NHS should pay for patients to have treatment in private centres if it helps to reduce waiting lists.

On the other hand, differences in opinion on how the private sector should forge a closer working relationship with the NHS remain. For example, 84% of Conservatives are firmly behind the idea of calling in private companies to take over and run NHS hospitals failing to meet the minimum standards of care, compared to 30% of Lib Dems and just 17% of Labour. Similarly, while 67% of Tories support the idea of co-payment – where treatment is part NHS and part privately funded – only 36% of Lib Dems and 14% of Labour MPs agree.

According to Andrew Hawkins, Chief Executive of Comres, the results show that the Conservatives and younger MPs “are more sympathetic to the role private sector companies can play in the NHS than their older, non-Tory counterparts”. And given that a relatively high influx of younger MPs is expected at the next General Election, which could then account for more than a third of the House, he says “we should expect that the direction of travel…towards more support for private sector involvement in the health service”.

Fight against NHS commercialisation
This is unlikely to please those opposed to private sector involvement in the NHS, particularly the British Medical Association, which is campaigning hard to prevent what it sees as commercialisation of the health service.

The Association is spearheading a new campaign called Look after our NHS which aims to highlight the short-comings of market-driven reforms which, it has long-argued, are not only wasting public money but are also having a negative impact on local health services.

According to the BMA, turning to the private sector for funding for new hospitals has “resulted in crippling debts for NHS Trusts”, and the introduction of competition between healthcare providers, as well as “costly deals” for independent sector treatment centres, has hit many existing services.

Those in support of the principle, however, maintain that introducing a more competitive element to healthcare – through the Independent Sector Treatment Programme and Private Finance Initiative schemes – is a good thing as it will help to boost service quality.