The health service could spend up to £10bn of taxpayers’ money buying operations and treatment in the private sector over the next four years to reduce waiting times.
Official data last week showed more than 50,000 patients have now waited at least a year for treatment, with the average wait for most patients being around 37 weeks, far more than the 18-week target.
The health service has not hit its target since February 2016, but the waiting time position has been made dramatically worse by the impact of coronavirus, which saw many routine operations and surgeries cancelled and delayed.
The overall waiting list is expected to soar to 10 million people later this year.
NHS England has extended its contract with private sector hospitals until March 2021, but in the contract notice on Monday, NHS England said it will launch a bid to find suppliers to join an agreed “framework” for hospitals to use over the next four years to help reduce the size of its waiting list.
The contract notice said it would aim to find “providers able to support the reduction of waiting lists forecast to increase as a result of Covid-19 interrupting and reducing available NHS capacity”.
It will include both inpatient and outpatient services, including diagnostic pathology and imaging services, routine surgery for operations such as hip replacements and cancer treatment.
The notice, first reported by Health Service Journal, also suggests some urgent and emergency patients could be transferred to the private sector by hospitals. The agreement will be used by all NHS trusts.
It said the procurement is expected to launch by the end of September and be awarded by the end of November 2020.
“The agreement term is expected to be two years with the option to extend for a further two years,” the notice read. “The estimated value is based on a potential upper value over a four-year period, actual value will depend on actual demand.”
Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, has instructed hospitals to get back to “near-normal” levels of activity from next month, with hospitals submitting plans in the coming weeks.
Many NHS leaders say it is unlikely the health service will be able to restore activities fully, with some running at only 60 per cent capacity due to restrictions needed to protect patients and staff from infection with coronavirus.
During the height of the pandemic, the government effectively nationalised the private hospital sector with an “at cost” deal to use their facilities to maintain emergency cancer surgery and increase capacity while the NHS treated more than 100,000 coronavirus patients.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Tens of thousands more people will be able to benefit from quicker access to surgery and other procedures, as well as vital tests and checks over the coming weeks, as a result of this deal, which is good news for patients.
“As we move into the next phase of the NHS response to the pandemic, with the NHS now safely expanding routine services while maintaining capacity to deal with Covid-19, this new deal with the majority of independent providers is based more closely on activity, which will allow taxpayers to get best value from investment.”
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