Private hospital capacity in England was "massively underused" when COVID-19 struck, despite the Government paying the sector an estimated £2 billion during the first year of the pandemic, according to investigative reporting by The BMJ.
NHS England announced on 21 March 2020 that it had secured access to 8000 hospital beds, more than 10,000 nurses, over 700 doctors, and more than 8000 other clinical staff from private healthcare providers to relieve pressure on the NHS. It stated that under the agreement, "the independent sector will reallocate practically its entire national hospital capacity en bloc to the NHS".
The BMJ reported that only 30 out of 200 private hospitals were used to treat patients with COVID-19 in April 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic, and questioned the wisdom of NHS England buying up capacity in advance, rather than paying for activity when it was delivered.
The report was met with a firm rebuttal from NHS England, which described the findings as "fundamentally flawed" and based on inaccurate data.
Private Hospitals 'Continued to Treat Paying Patients'
The BMJ said that while there was no suggestion that hospitals breached their contracts under the scheme, it reported that only 0.62% of the private healthcare sector's contracted beds were used to treat patients with COVID-19 between 30 March and 30 April 2020. On 12 April, when NHS hospitals in England were treating a peak of 18,921 inpatients with COVID, only 52 were being treated in private sector hospitals under the contract, it said.
The findings were in broad alignment with an investigation in October 2021 by OpenDemocracy, which claimed that the private sector cared for just 0.08% of the national total of COVID patients during the pandemic. That same month, the think tank, the Centre for Health and the Public Interest, published a report claiming that private healthcare was allowed to continue while the contract was in force, and that the overall amount of NHS funded activity in the private hospital sector, including outpatient appointments, fell by 45% compared with pre-pandemic levels.
In its response to the latest BMJ investigation, the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN) said that hospitals were always available to treat NHS patients and that private work was only carried out when facilities were not required by the NHS.
'Inaccurate Data Sources'
In a statement shared with Medscape News UK, an NHS spokesperson said: "The BMJ analysis is fundamentally flawed as it is based on various incomplete and inaccurate data sources which do not properly reflect the work carried out by independent sector providers, with data based on the wider independent sector, rather than those contracted by NHS England.
"The support of the independent sector in the early stages of the pandemic was vital both to care for COVID patients in NHS hospitals and to the provision of emergency and routine services for patients in both NHS and independent sector hospitals."
The public inquiry into COVID-19 will examine the impact of the pandemic on healthcare, with a preliminary hearing on that theme scheduled for 28 February.