Private health companies from overseas will be offered multi-million pound contracts as a part of a final drive to keep a government promise to NHS patients.
Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, will announce tomorrow that the NHS is to open 13 new conveyor belt- style diagnostic and treatment centres costing £100m, which will enable the NHS to carry out an extra 10,000 operations every month.
He will also advertise in the EU's Official Journal for private firms to open 10 more centres, to help meet a government target that no NHS patient should be on a hospital waiting list for more than six months. It will be open to private health companies to bid to open a chain of new centres.
The news will be a relief to NHS patients waiting for non-urgent operations such as hip replacements and treatment for cataracts. But the prospect of thousands of NHS patients being treated in private clinics threatens to open a new rift between the Government and the unions.
It will be the third time in a week that Mr Milburn has been plunged into controversy within the Labour Party. Last week he faced down a meeting of Labour MPs by insisting that the Government's proposal to turn the best NHS hospitals into self-run Foundation Hospitals will go ahead.
The idea has been opposed by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and former health secretary Frank Dobson, but is enthusiastically supported by Tony Blair. More than 100 MPs, mostly Labour, have signed a motion warning that the hospitals could create a two-tier NHS. Mr Milburn also angered Labour MPs and health unions by warning that some failing NHS hospitals could be handed over to private management.
Mr Dobson yesterday welcomed the new NHS centres, but not the involvement of private companies. "Generally it's a good thing because these places will crack on with dealing with cold surgery. They don't have to deal with accident and emergency, and they can keep going even if there is a flu epidemic. But I see no point in involving the private sector because it doesn't add to the number of doctors or nurses. Running one of these is a doddle compared with running a general hospital."
John Edmonds, leader of one of the main health unions, the GMB, warned: "People did not vote Labour to have the NHS carved up and sold off to the highest bidder."
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