Four specialist oncology treatment centres in England and Wales that cost £160 million to build and equip have lain idle for 7 months, despite the NHS struggling to catch up on cancer treatment backlogs.
The Rutherford Health Group went into liquidation in June 2022 and its main private cancer centres in Newport, Northumbria, Liverpool, and Reading, which could collectively treat up to 10,000 patients annually, were mothballed.
Its founding medical director, Professor Karol Sikora, has claimed that ongoing attempts to lease the facilities to the NHS are unlikely to succeed and that private bidders have so far been ignored in the rescue attempt. "I just feel it's such a sad situation to have four centres just essentially gathering dust," he told Medscape News UK.
Proton Beam Therapy
Rutherford Health, which was established in 2015, offered a range of cancer treatments that included proton beam therapy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy, as well as diagnostic imaging. Its route to liquidation was prompted by several factors that included the huge costs involved in building the network, the 2019 collapse of a majority shareholder investment fund, and a decline in the number of NHS patients sent to the centres during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Rutherford's collapse on 13 June last year, infrastructure fund Equitix has been trying to find a buyer. "They seem fixated on the NHS as a purchaser," according to Prof Sikora, who claimed he told them at the outset "this just won't work", largely because "NHS England wants to keep proton beam radiotherapy rationed, and so use only its own two centres at Manchester and UCLH".
In an open letter last November to Equitix's chief operating officer, Siôn Jones, Prof Sikora said several investment funds had been identified for the task but claimed that "your team has not properly engaged with them". He called on the firm to renew its efforts to rescue the centres so that "thousands of cancer patients across the country could receive state-of-the-art cancer treatment within weeks". Prof Sikora insisted that private investors had indicated they would be prepared to put up the estimated £100 million needed to get the centres working again.
The oncologist told us: "My beef is that Equitix have been doing this for 6 months and they've not got any agreement with anybody at a time when there's this huge need for cancer services in the UK."
Speaking to Private Investors and Public Bodies
Medscape News UK asked Equitix for an update on the negotiations and whether it was focused on the NHS as a preferred candidate. Mr Jones told us: "We don't have [a] preference per se but we [are] speaking to both private and public sector bodies", although discussions "are highly confidential". As a result of "significant cashflow difficulties" experienced by Rutherford, "all four cancer centres were closed because there was no funding available to meet payroll and other operating costs", he explained in an email.
In hindsight, Prof Sikora, said he regretted not speaking up more forcibly in favour of curbing spending when finances showed signs of strain. "If we'd taken corrective action 2 years before we did, we almost certainly would have been all right because the revenue was coming," he insisted.
Medscape News UK has approached NHS England for a comment.