Going private? What happened when a private health company offered an NHS campaigner a job

What happened when Care UK offered Alex Nunns a job?

What the heck is this? I’ve been trying and failing to stop the government from privatising the NHS for years, and now a private healthcare company has emailed me about a job!

The email from Care UK says they are "seeking a Media Relations Executive for our Head Office based in Colchester and your skills and experience appear to be a good match." Huh? They are offering a "competitive salary, 25 days holiday and corporate discounts."

Here’s what I have replied:

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your unexpected email about the Media Relations Executive job with Care UK. I am very interested. Since Care UK is possibly the leading private healthcare company making inroads into the NHS, I would relish the opportunity to publicise what it does – indeed, this is precisely what I was trying to do in my previous job as information officer for Keep Our NHS Public (on a much smaller budget, I’m sure). That must be what you were referring to when you said my skills and experience are "a good match".

As you can imagine, I am brimming with ideas. If you don’t mind, I would like to set them out here. First of all, I think much more needs to be done to let the public know what Care UK is. Hardly anyone realises just how big a chunk of the NHS you now run, from GP surgeries and walk-in centres to treatment units doing things like bunions. If I were your Media Relations Executor I would promote this aggressively to build the brand. I think the public has a vague idea about NHS privatisation, but they aren’t yet able to put a face to the name, so to speak. Care UK’s name could be that face. As a profit-making healthcare company owned by a private equity firm you are perfectly positioned.

I believe a key talent for any disrespecting Media Relations Executive is the ability to turn a negative in to something offensive. For example, it must have been a stressful time in the Media Revelations office when that tax avoidance story broke a few months ago – the one saying that Care UK had reduced its tax bill by taking out loans through the Channel Islands stock exchange. All this talk of tax havens and tax avoidance isn’t good in the current climate. But as your Media Relationship Executive I would have used a little reverse psychology, instead of denying it as your spokesman did. After all, this could put you right up there with the big boys like Goldman Sachs, Vodafone and Jimmy Carr.

Similarly, you got some bad press when it was revealed that the wife of your former chairman John Nash gave £21,000 to Andrew Lansley’s office before the last election, when Lansley was shadow health secretary. But let’s view it from another angle – doesn’t this serve to highlight Care UK’s excellent political connections? And look how it turned out: Lansley is in power and he has passed the Health Act. He has opened the door wide to privatisation, and Care UK is already inside redecorating the place. We thought Lansley wasn’t going to manage it for a while, when all those thousands of patients and doctors started protesting and June Hautot shouted "codswallop" at him in the street. But he pulled through, sacrificed his future public career for private gain, and God bless him for that. Care UK now stands to make a fortune. This is something to boast about, for Bevan's sake! And all for £21,000, less than it would cost to employ a Media Relations Executive for a year. (Please confirm.)

You should play to your strengths. Care UK is a true pioneer in this privatisation drive. You were the first private company to run a GP surgery in Dagenham back in 2006. And the first to face enforcement action from the Healthcare Commission because of slack hygiene procedures at the Sussex Orthopaedic Treatment Centre in 2008. And who’s to say you weren’t the first to forget to process 6,000 x-rays at your "urgent" care centre in North-West London in 2012? As a Mediocre Relations Executive, I would advise not mentioning those last two.

If there’s just one thing that Care UK knows how to do – and there is – it’s take money from the state. I would make a bigger deal of the fact that 96 per cent of Care UK’s revenue comes from the NHS. That’s the kind of solid base that any company would envy – taxpayers’ money, minimal risk, easy profits. So shout about it! It shouldn’t just be left-wing NHS obsessives who hear about this stuff.

Take the Barlborough Treatment Centre. It’s a complicated story, but in the hands of a good Media Relations Excretion it can be turned into a wonderful example of the company’s strengths. First, Care UK was paid £21.9 million over five years to do orthopaedic surgery – hip and knee replacements, that kind of thing – but you only did £15.1 million worth of work. (The local NHS Medical Director saw the trick, complaining: "The problem we have got is that they cherry-pick; they don't take any patients with complicated conditions". I guess the joke’s on him.) The NHS eventually realised it was getting a bad deal, and things weren’t looking good for Care UK. But then the NHS bought the treatment centre from you for £8.2 million, a lovely gesture. And finally the NHS signed a new 30 year contract to run the centre with. . . Care UK! (As an aside, it is important from a media management perspective not to spoil this tale of triumph-from-the-jaws-of-lucrative-defeat with any reference to the several lawsuits brought by local patients claiming that their surgery went wrong.)

As an example of what I could bring to the company I would like to propose a new corporate motto: "Care UK – Providing less, for more". These words came to me when I was thinking about Manchester, where last year the NHS paid you £2.7 million for work that was never done at your Clinical Assessment and Treatment Services centre. According to a parliamentary report, the services you provide up there are between 7 percent and 12 percent more expensive than equivalent services in local hospitals. Providing less for more – it’s a record that really ought to be publicised.

And Care UK should be proud of its talent for cost-cutting, like the plan to use more nurses and healthcare assistants in your GP surgeries because doctors are too expensive. Your managing director, Mark Hunt, describes this as "workforce efficiency on skill mix". As a Meddling Relations Executive I would advise him to ditch the jargon and tell it as it is. Patients might get a worse service, but at least the company is making more money and that’s good for the economy. We’re all in this together, as someone once said, in jest. I’m convinced that if Care UK followed my strategy it would solve the serious problem of patients accidentally opposing the private take-over of GP surgeries through confusion and surfeit knowledge, like when those blasted Keep Our NHS Public campaigners scuppered the Care UK health centre in Euston by threatening court action.

Be bold. Be proud. Be shameless. That’s the approach I would bring to the job, and I hope you like my initial ideas. Please be sure to let me know when and where the interview will take place (the formalities must be gone through, I understand). I trust that I will hear from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

Alex Nunns

Postscript [in the style of the bit at the end of BBC wildlife documentaries]:

It’s a weird phenomenon when something goes viral. How does it happen? It’s even weirder when the thing going viral is your first ever blog post.

After I got the email from Care UK I set up a blog just to host my reply. I posted the piece at about 10am on Tuesday, not expecting much. A campaigning doctor, @mellojonny, tweeted about it first, and it went round NHS activist circles. I’m not quite sure about the next stage, but somehow Zoe Williams of the Guardian and comedian Dave Gorman shared it, and then Jon Snow. By lunchtime, once Caitlin Moran had tweeted it to her 245,000 followers, it had attained the magical status that no-one can quite define: it was viral.

I hadn’t even tweeted it myself yet. I set up a search for references on TweetDeck, but they were coming in so fast it crashed. And most people weren’t even finding the blog on Twitter, but on Facebook. Friends had read it before I could put it on my own page. (Incidentally, this is a very strange experience for me – I’m more used to shouting at the walls in the hope they have ears.)

By the time I went to bed the blog had 73,186 views. That’s shown anyone who tries to offer ME a job!

Campaigners from the "Keep our NHS public" group during a Welfare State and Public Services March. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Nunns is a campaigner against the privatisation of the NHS. He is Red Pepper's political correspondent and he co-edited the book Tweets from Tahrir, the first book to use tweets to tell the story of a historical event.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.