NHS and private hospitals will work as one in future, says Spire boss

Julia Bradshaw
·3 min read
Spire did a lot of work supporting the NHS during the Covid pandemic
Spire did a lot of work supporting the NHS during the Covid pandemic

Private hospitals and the NHS will work much more closely as one system in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the boss of a major healthcare provider.

Justin Ash, chief executive of listed hospital group Spire Healthcare, said the pandemic had forced the NHS to make more use of private hospitals for critical and cancer care. The health service had previously used groups like Spire to carry out elective surgery such as hip and knee replacements.

The pandemic changed that. Of the £420m of work Spire carried out in total for the NHS last year, £363m was for the contract signed with the Government to provide pandemic support and included critical and cancer care.

“In the future I am sure that will correct somewhat, but we are clear that we are open to helping more on the critical and cancer work,” said Mr Ash.

Last year Spire treated more than 210,000 NHS patients in a contract drawn up within days at the height of the pandemic.

“These were patients who on the whole probably would not have had NHS treatment because of Covid,” said Mr Ash. In January alone, Spire treated 1,500 "P2" patients - the highest level of urgency after A&E.

“In the main we did quite a lot of elective care and, because we have quite good facilities for cancer and complex work, we had more than 30,000 episodes of cancer care, as we speak we have nine NHS cancer hubs running out of our hospitals where they have moved urgent cancer work into our facilities because it is not safe to have cancer patients in hospitals where there is a lot of Covid,” the Spire boss said.

This was a departure from previous practice. “One of the things to have come out of Covid is a collaboration that will really help patients long-term,” Mr Ash said. “In the past the NHS and private system has sort of run as two systems, but from now on it will work much more work as one system.”

A new framework for working with the NHS will also allow for a more streamlined and better-coordinated approach, with less risk of a postcode lottery for patients.

“It’s a different way of doing business with the private sector and is much more collaborative,” he said. “In the world before Covid the NHS did their thing and we did our thing and there was some overlap. But in the last year we have literally worked as one system - we had 1,600 NHS consultants working in Spire, we had some of our teams working in their hospitals. The collaboration between us and the NHS has been remarkable.”

Spire has also recruited 154 nurses from the Philippines who start this quarter and wants to expand its training programme for both nurses and doctors.

“We are recruiting from the Philippines because there is no longer a source of nurses from Europe and the Philippines has good quality nurses,” Mr Ash said.

He added it was “just possible” that the closer NHS collaboration could lead to new hospitals built in partnership with the health service. “I absolutely think an NHS/private hospital could happen in future and people are talking about how that might work.”

It came as Spire reported a 6pc decline in sales to £920m in 2020, as the pandemic impacted hospital admissions. Spire made a pre-tax loss of £18.5m, down from a £12.8m profit the year before.

Sales picked up in the second half as elective work restarted, while the last three months of 2020 brought a surge in revenue from the self-pay market.