Virgin Care expands in prison healthcare

Virgin Care, part of Sir Richard Branson’s business empire, has expanded its presence in UK prisons, as more NHS trusts seek to hand the provision of key services to the private sector.

The privately owned company has won its fifth deal to run prison healthcare services at HMP Bullingdon, near Bicester in Oxfordshire. The contract, which will be announced this week, is worth £6.6m over three years, with an option for a two-year extension.

“We are very pleased to be working with Virgin Care, which has demonstrated its ability and commitment to provide safe, high-quality healthcare and treatment to patients at HMP Bullingdon,” said Liz Gainer, the offender health commissioner for NHS in southern England.

The deal underscores the piecemeal nature of healthcare outsourcing. With the Department of Health expected to trim billions of pounds from its budget over the next few years, the number of NHS workers transferred to the private sector has accelerated, with everything from entire hospitals to individual services such as pathology, sexual health or dentistry being put out to tender.

Laing & Buisson, the healthcare analysts, estimate that about a third of the £300m prisons healthcare market is being run by the private sector. Care UK, the private equity-owned healthcare provider, is the market leader.

“It is likely that the process of prison healthcare outsourcing will continue, and the share of prison healthcare provided in-house by the National Offender Management Service will continue to diminish,” Laing & Buisson said.

Virgin runs more than 200 NHS services nationwide, including urgent care centres, sexual health services, community diagnosis and GP surgeries.

“Since 2006 we have treated over 2.5m NHS patients, offering improved accessibility, convenience and most importantly delivering improved health outcomes – providing good value for the NHS,” said Sue Davis, head of prison health for Virgin Care.

Under the HMP Bullingdon deal, all staff had transferred to Virgin and would retain existing terms and conditions. Virgin is also looking to develop a new prison care model, which will allow patients to be treated more locally within the prison and reduce the need for patients to be transferred unnecessarily around the prison.

Last month, Virgin took over a contract to run children’s services for NHS Devon county council. Under the three-year, £132m deal it will run frontline services for children including mental health, school nursing, health visits and care for the disabled.

Virgin is also one of 39 organisations – including Serco and Circle – to have expressed an interest in running parts of the South London Healthcare Trust, which operates three hospitals but last year became the first trust to be put into administration.

The National Offender Management Service handed responsibility for the provision of healthcare services in prisons to the Department of Health in 2002, with responsibility delegated to local health commissioning boards four years later.

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