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Private sector to play key role in clearing backlog, says NHS chief

More than six million people are waiting for elective care on the NHS.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

With the health service dealing with a record number of patients waiting for elective care, the chief executive of the NHS has said that collaboration with the private sector will “play an extremely important part” in clearing the backlog of cases.

Though the NHS has utilised private sector services for years, it struck new deals with and relied on third-party providers to create extra capacity for treatment throughout the pandemic.

Utilising the services of the independent sector to help clear the backlog was outlined in the NHS elective recovery plan, published in February.

“We have had NHS activity run through the independent sector for a very long time, and we have no intention of changing that,” Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, told the public accounts committee session on Monday (28 March).

“In fact, one of the things that we have learned through the last few years of the pandemic is how to work more effectively in partnership with the independent sector – and we’ll be seeking to build on that as part of our elective recovery programme,” she added.

As of January 2022, 6.1 million people are currently on NHS waiting lists for elective care.

At the beginning of the year, as Omicron cases rose, the health service signed short-term contracts with ten organisations in the independent sector to provide additional support and capacity to the NHS should it become overwhelmed. The end of the 2021/22 financial year sees these contracts end, but Pritchard outlined her desire to bolster the NHS’s private sector partnerships: “This is the end of this particular contract arrangement, but the independent sector will continue to play an extremely important part in our overall elective recovery plan.”

On Tuesday (30 March), the public accounts committee also questioned health officials on the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine programme, and what is to come next as the UK begins to “live with Covid”.

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Speaking at the session was Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the body in charge of NHS Test and Trace services.

Over the past two years the government has allocated more than £37bn to Test and Trace, which the UKHSA took over in October 2021, but Harries said “it’s reasonable that there will be a diminution” in the body’s 2022/23 budget when it is confirmed in the coming days.

“The government has signalled [that] we’re epidemiologically now in a different phase of Covid,” she said. “So it’s entirely appropriate that the testing changes as we go forward.”

Continued, but reduced, PCR testing at a local level throughout the country and constant communication with overseas public health agencies will play a key role in monitoring the current and next phases of the pandemic, Harries added.

“The thing we do have in this country, and I’m confident will be sustained, is a backbone of epidemiological prowess… so we should have a good review of when any variant may or may not arise.”

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