Seventy percent of contracts for NHS services in England over a nine-month period last year were snapped up by private companies, it has been claimed, re-igniting fears over back-door privatisation of the health service.

According to a report by NHS Support Forum, between April and December last year 400 contracts for clinical NHS services worth more than £5 billion were put up for grabs, and so far the lion's share has gone to the commercial sector, it says.

In a sample of 57 contracts, the group found that 38 were won by the private sector, 15 went to the NHS and two to charities, and one is shared between the public and private sectors. 

"If this trend continues, NHS providers will face a huge challenge to their income from commercial competition," the Forum warned.

New competition laws introduced last April have essentially made it very difficult for commissioners not to put service contracts out to tender. If there is no competitive process, commissioners must be able to show that the existing NHS services are the best available.

Since then, the group believes there has already been "a significant transfer of care out of the hands of the NHS towards a range of commercially driven providers," and that "commercial influence is also spreading to the management of NHS facilities and to the decisions around how the NHS budget is spent".

Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, warns that the figures show privatisation of the NHS is “proceeding at an alarming pace and scale”, report The Independent.

“While the future demands greater integration of care, David Cameron has set the NHS on the opposite path – a fast-track to fragmentation and privatisation,” he said.

Figures 'selective and misleading'

But the government insists that the Forum's findings are "selective and misleading", as they only relate to a small sample.

"The reality is that private sector providers only carry out around 6% of all NHS work," reads a statement from the Department of Health (although this includes the whole spectrum of contracts rather than just those for clinical services).

There has been a roughly 1% increase since 2010 and "any suggestion the reforms are leading to dramatic increases is inaccurate," it stressed.

David Hare, chief executive of NHS Partners Network, also argued that the figures "are not representative of the wider NHS".

"Open competition for NHS contracts allows commissioners to choose the best available provider for services regardless of whether public, private or voluntary sector. But this is not privatisation of the NHS," he said, adding that "the vast majority of people do not mind who delivers their care as long it is free".