Sir Richard Branson has been appointed by the Government to make hospitals more consumer-friendly. The Virgin boss has been brought in by Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, to improve the standard of food and the "homeliness" of wards for NHS patients.

Executives from his airline, Virgin Atlantic, will offer advice to the Department of Health as part of the Government's NHS review, to be published in July.

In return for suggesting how to brighten up Britain's over-stretched wards, they will receive the modest sum of £35,000. Virgin Atlantic has won awards for customer care in the past. However, its sister company, Virgin Trains, has been heavily criticised for poor time-keeping and stiff early-morning prices.

Sir Richard's previous forays into Government policy have not been successful. In 1986, he was appointed to advise on Margaret Thatcher's anti-litter campaign, but this was abandoned after just three years.

A government insider said last night that Sir Richard was ideal for providing the "cultural shift" needed in the health service. The source added that other captains of industry would be welcome to provide similar advice.

"The important thing is that we shift to the position where patients feel they are king," the source said.

"In the past, the NHS has been a national factory for healthcare. We need to get to a point where families feel involved in the healing process through more flexible visiting hours for example."