The government is looking to the private sector to try to reduce NHS waiting lists.
Thirteen new Community Diagnostic Centers (CDCs) will be opened across England to carry out an additional 742,000 scans, checks and tests per year.
Eight of the new facilities will be operated by the private sector – but despite this, all services will remain free for patients.
NHS waiting lists stood at 7.47million at the end of May, the highest number since records began in 2007.
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Mr Sunak made cutting NHS waiting lists one of his top five priorities with the public in a speech he gave in January – but last month, he said union action in the health service had made his mission “more difficult”.
A Sky News analysis in May found that the number of people waiting more than a year for hospital treatment is 186 times higher than before the pandemic began.
At the end of February, 300,000 people in England had been waiting for more than a year since being referred by a consultant. Two years ago, in February 2020, this figure was less than 2,000.
Junior doctors are currently preparing for another four-day strike from August 11, while consultants must stand down for 48 hours from August 24 amid an ongoing dispute with the government over wages and working conditions.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: “We must use all available resources to provide vital checks to ease the pressure on the NHS.
“By using the capacity available in the independent sector and allowing patients to access this diagnostic capacity for free when they need it, we can offer patients a wider choice of places to receive treatment and, doing so, diagnose serious diseases more quickly and start treatments earlier.”
The development is likely to reignite debate over private sector involvement in the NHS, a concept fiercely resisted by campaigners who fear any potential shift to private American-style healthcare.
In an exclusive interview with Sky News last month, the former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair says the NHS is ‘not serving its purpose’ and warned, “The truth is, you won’t have much more money to spend, but you need to think about how we can do things completely differently.”
He said there should be greater private sector involvement in the NHS and that there should be “full cooperation between the public and private sectors”.
During his campaign to become leader of the Labor Party, Sir Keir Starmer pledged to introduce common ownership of UK public services – including rail, mail, energy and water – saying that “the public services should be in public hands”.
He also promised to “end outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice system”.
However, in an interview with Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday in January, the Labor leader backtracked on that commitment, saying: “We’re not talking about privatizing the NHS. The NHS has always used elements of the sector private, general practitioners are an example of this.
“Outsourcing some issues and functions has not been, in my opinion, very effective.”
And in its response to the new centers announced today, the Labor Party said the government was currently not making enough use of private capacity – saying 331,000 patients awaiting NHS care could have been treated since January 2022.
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: “The Conservatives are not using the capacity of the private sector and patients are paying the price.
“No one should wait in pain while hospital beds that could be used are empty. The next Labor government will use unused capacity in the private sector to get patients seen faster.”
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The private centers announced today will operate similarly to those run by the NHS, but staff will be employed by private operators, who also own the buildings.
The south west sites – located in Redruth, Bristol, Torbay, Yeovil and Weston-super-Mare – will be operated by diagnostics company InHealth.
The others are located in Southend, Northampton and south Birmingham – joining the four already operating in Brighton, north Solihull, Oxford and Salford.
The new sites managed by the NHS are in Hornchurch, Skegness, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stoke-on-Trent.
The government has pledged to open 160 CDCs by 2030. Currently, 114 are operating and they have carried out 4.6 million tests, checks and scans since July 2021.