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Sun 5 December 2021

The Government has revealed the record of a private meeting between a former junior Health Minister and various corporate entities, though its details are disputed

A former minister – sacked by the Prime Minister after becoming embroiled in controversy over the awarding of Government contracts during the Coronavirus pandemic – held a meeting with various private health interests to discuss concerning features of the Government’s new health and social care reforms, Byline Times can reveal.

Records show that Lord James Bethell met with Lord Michael Farmer, Virgin Care and a firm called RK Trinity – owned by Lord Farmer – on 21 May this year.

Lord Bethell was at the time serving as a junior Health Minister, responsible for the Government’s relationships with private sector providers during the Coronavirus crisis.

A key ally of former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock, Lord Bethell was sacked during Boris Johnson’s September reshuffle following controversy over his use of a personal email account to conduct Government business during the pandemic. It also emerged that the nightclub entrepreneur had replaced his mobile phone before it could be searched for any information relating to the awarding of Government deals conducted through mediums such as WhatsApp.

Lord Farmer is a wealthy businessman and a former treasurer of the Conservatives, having personally donated almost £600,000 to the party since the start of 2019. His business interests are extensive, including in the realm of healthcare. As shown by his register of interests, the peer is a shareholder in Centene Corporation and eHealth – both of which operate in the healthcare sector.

According to Government records, Lord Bethell’s meeting was arranged to discuss the Health and Care Bill – which aims to reform the NHS and social care sector – currently being considered by Parliament. Specifically, the participants discussed integrated care boards (ICBs) – a controversial aspect of the reforms, the records revealed.

However, an account of the purpose of the meeting provided to Byline Times by Virgin Care contradicted the one stated in the Government’s records.

Rather than discussing ICBs, a Virgin Care spokesperson said that a managing director was invited to join the meeting by Lord Farmer to talk about family hubs – centres that provide integrated family services to young people. This policy has been widely championed by the peer, who is the founder of the Family Hubs Network.

“We have more than a decade of experience working in the NHS and transforming services, and we are always happy to share what we have learnt for the benefit of similar services,” the spokesperson said.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) did not respond to Byline Times’ request for clarification on the subject of the meeting. A DHSC spokesperson said: We do not expect private providers, or those with significant interests in private healthcare, to sit on Integrated Care Boards. Our Health and Care Bill builds on the NHS’ own proposals for reform and will ensure a health system that is less bureaucratic, more accountable, and more integrated in the wake of the pandemic. The NHS is not, and never will be for sale.”

This is not be the first time that Lord Bethell’s meetings have been the source of confusion. In June, Byline Times revealed that the Department of Health and Social Care had failed to release details of 27 meetings conducted by him with private companies that went on to be awarded £1.14 billion worth of Government contracts.

ICBs will replace Clinical Commission Groups and will plan health and care services in local areas – this includes covering private sector procurement. ICBs will bring together the leaders of local NHS services and providers – while representatives from the private sector will also be able to join the boards, though this is not mandatory.

The Health and Social Care Secretary – or NHS England – will be responsible for appointing the chair of each ICB.Not only does this centralise power, it also means that should the Government be in favour of private sector involvement in the NHS – which it currently is – it can appoint chairs who share a similar view. This, in turn, would make it more likely for private sector interests to be invited onto an ICB and involved in local procurement.

In some ways, the Government’s proposed reforms would simply institutionalise the move towards greater private sector involvement in the NHS. Indeed, Virgin Care already has a place on the Bath, Swindon and Wiltshire Integrated Care System Partnership Board, while it has been awarded £2 billion worth of NHS and local authority healthcare deals. The firm says that it has committed to re-investing future profits “into publicly funded health and care services”.

Centene Corporation, which boasts Lord Farmer as a shareholder, is an American-based private insurance and healthcare firm that records annual profits in excess of $100 billion. It owns a number of UK subsidiary firms, including Operose Health, which has been expanding into the domestic market in recent years. Operose took over the running of one of England’s biggest NHS general practice providers earlier this year, meaning that it now runs 58 GP practices across the country. This makes it the nation’s largest GP network.

Operose was also one of 67 suppliers awarded a place on a Government framework contract worth in total £10 billion in order to increase NHS capacity. The framework runs until November 2024. In April this year, it was reported that the outgoing CEO of Operose had been hired as an advisor to Boris Johnson on NHS transformation and social care.

There is no evidence to suggest that Lord Farmer used the meeting to advocate on behalf of Centene or Operose. However, the meeting does highlight how the Government appears resolute in its conviction to include the private sector in the future of the NHS – despite widespread concerns.

The private sector has been deployed extensively during the Coronavirus pandemic, with £41.3 billion and counting awarded in contracts to firms. The Government’s use of private companies to supply personal protective equipment – at highly inflated prices – has been criticised, as has its decision to use private companies for contact-tracing, embedded within central government, rather than local public health teams.

“The public health service is the best way to handle a pandemic,” the UK’s former Chief Scientist Sir David King told Byline Times in May. “You don’t handle it by pumping taxpayers’ money into the private sector without any competition. If we had pumped public money into improving the ability of our health service to respond, I’m pretty confident we would have got a much, much better result.”

Operose refused to comment.

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