Revealed: Former health secretary's company scoops deal to treat NHS backlog patients

Omnes clinics will take 'low risk' cases in arrangement struck without any public consultation

Thursday, 25th November 2021 — By Tom Foot

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Stephen Dorrell and the Royal Free Hospital

DOCTORS have been told to refer NHS patients to a private company run by a former secretary of state of health as part of a rescue package for hospitals pushed to “breaking point” by Covid.

The New Journal can reveal how health chiefs have struck a deal behind closed doors with Omnes Healthcare – part of the Omnes Group – to take patients who have been waiting more than 30 weeks for appointments following a GP referral.

The group’s company director and chairman is John Major’s former health secretary Stephen Dorrell, who this week told the New Journal the firm was committed to “balancing profit with purpose”.

The Royal Free has written to Camden GPs saying skin-test patients can now be sent to Omnes’ clinics for check-ups instead of the NHS hospital as long as they are given the “opportunity to opt out of this”.

Like many hospitals, the Royal Free is struggling to cope with an appointments backlog that built up when wards were overwhelmed with coronavirus patients, and is also facing an “unprecedented” surge in referrals.

The government announced last month a £5.4billion package to support hospitals in what it described as a “significant boost for the NHS”.

But in north London, the Omnes deal shows how a door is opening for more private sector encroachment in the NHS in the aftermath of Covid.

Professor Sue Richards, from Keep Our NHS Public, said: “It is very predictable that health commissioners would use the money to deal with the NHS backlog to buy in services from private companies.  Stealth privatisation is second nature to them now.”

Omnes Healthcare Ltd was formed in August 2019 when it took over the assets of Concordia Healthcare that had gone into liquidation. Its parent company is the Omnes Group that has since January 2020 been run by Mr Dorrell, who holds 1,000 shares in the firm according to Companies House.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing or rule-breaking by the company or Mr Dorrell who was health secretary from 1995-97 and chair of the House of the Commons health committee in 2010-2014.

The former MP stood down from his Charnwood seat in Leicestershire in 2015 then fell out with his own party over Europe, campaigning against Brexit. He later joined Change UK and then the Lib Dems.

Faced with a series of questions about the private health sector, he told the New Journal: “We have been supporting several NHS trusts as they address the challenge of working through their waiting lists.

“Our services provide additional capacity on terms which do not divert resources away from existing services. We certainly aim to be long-term partners to the NHS, but the NHS should only deal with us for as long as we offer good value solutions.”

When asked if he felt the NHS had been properly funded in the build-up to the Covid pandemic, Mr Dorrell said: “The ability of the NHS to meet the growing demands it faces is determined by a combination of the level of government funding, coupled with service efficiency; it is the latter point where Omnes aims to make a difference.”

He said he “completely agreed” that NHS contracts with private health firms “should be subject to public scrutiny”.

Latest figures show that 98,000 patients are waiting for some form of planned surgery or appointment at the Royal Free London (RFL).

“We are bottom of the table for London performance,” said a report to the RFL trust’s board about the backlog that raised questions about an “unprecedented referral activity” from GPs in recent weeks, particularly for dermatology.

Waiting times for basic dermatology checks are on average 30 weeks, while urgent referrals for patients needing urgent suspected skin cancer checks are now around the 25-day mark.

The Royal Free, in a letter to GPs about the Omnes deal seen by the New Journal, casts doubt on doctors’ decision-making during the height of the pandemic when so many consultations have been done online.

The letter said that a special audit of the “appropriateness” of all urgent referrals of patients with suspected cancer made in recent months had taken place. It had found that none of these patients had been diagnosed with disease, compared to a 6 per cent hit rate pre-Covid.

“Just 15 per cent of patients who were referred to the hospital post-Covid were seen face-to-face, compared to 99 per cent before,” the letter said.

The Londonwide Local Medical Committee, representing Camden GPs, told the New Journal this week the profession was “stuck between a rock and a hard place” following political pressure to boost referrals due to fears that diagnoses of cancer and heart disease may have been missed during the pandemic.

A Royal Free spokesperson said the new Omnes clinics would be used for “low-risk patients” only, adding: “In order to reduce long waiting times due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some dermatology patients are being offered appointments with an independent provider, Omnes Healthcare. This is a temporary arrangement and all patients continue to be overseen by our clinicians, and any patients who would prefer to wait for an appointment at the Royal Free London can do so.”

£564k Donations to support hospital staff

THE Royal Free Charity has raised a staggering £564,000 in donations to its “breaking point” fundraising appeal.

The biggest single donation of £100,000 came through the Rind Foundation, while there were dozens of smaller donations of around £5 and £10.

Many were accompanied with touching tributes to family members who had died during the pandemic.

One donation of £63 simply said: “I walk past the Royal Free every day and see how hard the NHS staff are working. You deserve so much more!”

Funds from the appeal, featured in the New Journal a fortnight ago, cannot be used to fund clinical work, but it can be spent on projects supporting staff and patients.

Royal Free Charity chairwoman Judi Dewinter said: “Government funding for the NHS can only go so far and cannot respond to and provide for every need.”

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