Whitehall civil servants have been encouraged to pay for private healthcare as “many are finding it difficult getting in contact with a GP” on the NHS.
An email, which appears to have been sent to some staff by the Cabinet Office, says they can sign up for “affordable private healthcare” with the York-based company Benenden Health as part of an employee benefits package. It says: “At a time when every one of us wants the security of health, we want you to know we’re here for you.
“Many are finding it difficult getting in contact with a GP and may experience extended NHS waiting times for diagnosis and treatment.”
The Cabinet Office denied the note was sent by the government and said the message may have been emailed automatically by an external IT company which manages government employees’ benefits network. One civil servant was said to have remarked “finding it difficult to get in touch with a GP? Are they taking the piss?” when they received the message.
The email has emerged after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to confirm earlier this week whether he used private healthcare, telling reporters it was “not appropriate” for him to answer the question.
Records show that Benenden Health, a not for profit company, sponsored an event called “NHS liberalisation: Conservatism’s final frontier?” at the Conservative Party conference in 2016.
The Cabinet Office has stressed no public money was being used to fund membership deals with the company.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “The Conservatives are happy for working people to face waiting times that they won’t accept for themselves. It’s one rule for them and another rule for everyone else. The Cabinet Office is correct – people are finding it impossible to get a GP appointment, while 400,000 patients have been waiting more than a year for treatment.
“Instead of jumping the queue, the government should adopt Labour’s plan to bring down waiting times by training a new generation of doctors and nurses, paid for by abolishing [the] non-doms [tax status].”
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, NHS backlogs have hit a record high – 7.1 million people in England are on waiting lists for routine procedures such as hip and knee operations. Delays at A&E, GP practices and ambulance services have also got longer, and the NHS is preparing for what may be the toughest winter ever.
Its staff are also under pressure, with nurses preparing to go on strike in December over pay if the government fails to open negotiations in the coming days. The New Statesman has contacted Benenden Health for comment.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said departments “have access to a cross-government employee benefits framework” run by an external company.
He added: “This arrangement is in no way unique to the civil service and many employers have similar relationships.”