Richard Branson’s controversial private health company Virgin Care could take over children’s mental health care in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 08:27 22 February 2018 | UPDATED: 17:33 22 February 2018

Richard Branson visits the Virgin Money Lounge in Norwich. Picture: Denise Bradley

Richard Branson visits the Virgin Money Lounge in Norwich. Picture: Denise Bradley

Archant 2012

Children’s mental health services in Norfolk could be taken over by Sir Richard Branson’s controversial company Virgin Care, it can be revealed.

Mental Health. Pictured: Two women hold hands. Picture: Time to change/Newscast Online Mental Health. Pictured: Two women hold hands. Picture: Time to change/Newscast Online

The private company, which provides more than £1bn-worth of NHS contracts across the country, is believed to be eyeing a move into Norfolk - prompting fears about the creeping privatisation of the NHS.

One campaigner said it would be an “absolute disaster”, while another said: “The last thing we need is Richard Branson to join in.”

The possible move by Virgin Care emerged in board papers for a meeting of mental health trust directors on Thursday, which said the process of re-tendering the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) contract had begun.

The papers say: “Virgin are bidding for CAMHS services in Devon, indicating they will bid in Norfolk, should the tender proceed.”

Jan Mclachlan.
Byline: Sonya Duncan
Copyright: Archant 2016 Jan Mclachlan. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2016

Research by the pressure group the NHS Support Federation found over the last seven years Virgin Care had been awarded contracts worth more than £2bn and by this year was running more than 400 NHS services across the country.

Last year the firm sued six clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) after it failed to win an £82m care contract.

But the county’s CCGs said no decision had been made, and re-tendering was only a “potential option in the future”. A spokesman added: “It is unfortunate that speculation has been made, in the way it has, in trust board papers.”

Campaigners said awarding the contract to Virgin Care would be “devastating”.

Norman Lamb MP. Picture : ANTONY KELLY Norman Lamb MP. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Jan McLachlan, from the NHS Norfolk Action Group, said: “It’s interesting how these services have been run down, this is the first thing that happens before privatisation. I think it would be an absolute disaster.”

A spokesman from the Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk said: “We don’t need the private sector. We need decently-funded, well-managed and integrated NHS mental health services. The last thing we need is Richard Branson to join in.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, who has campaigned for improvements in mental health, added: “I’m concerned about the proposal but we also have to recognise we have to do a lot of work to improve children and adolescent mental health in Norfolk.”

This newspaper has previously reported funding was given by commissioners to cover 30pc of children who needed help in Norfolk and it would take an extra £36m to reach all children.

And the region’s mental health trust last year topped the list for the number of referrals to treat children and young people it turns away.

A spokesman for Virgin Care said it did not comment on procurement but pointed towards a blog written by founder Sir Richard which said: “Contrary to reports, the Virgin Care group has not made a profit to date.

“If and when I could take a dividend from Virgin Care (which would make us a profit over and above our overall investment), I will invest 100pc of that money back into helping NHS patients young and old, with our frontline employees deciding how best to spend it.”

Contracts operated by Virgin Care include CAMHS in Devon. The Health Service Journal (HSJ) reported last month the organisation was set to re-bid for the £259m contract.

Legal battles

Virgin Care caused controversy last year when it sued the NHS after losing out on a £82m contract to provide children’s health services in Surrey.

Virgin said there were “serious flaws” in the way the contract was awarded and the NHS paid out an undisclosed sum in a confidential settlement in November 2017.

Surrey Downs CCG initially said its liability in the case was £328,000 in its October public finance papers, the HSJ reported.

But this was later removed and the CCG said the level of detail “should not have been included”.

At the time Labour branded the settlement as “scandalous”.

The company is also caught up in another NHS legal battle, where Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are challenging Lancashire County Council’s decision to award a £104m child healthcare contract to the private provider.

Going private

Virgin Care would not be the only non-NHS provider delivering services in Norfolk.

From April this year, NHS drug and alcohol treatment will be provided by charity Change, Grow, Live (CGL) - formerly known as Crime Reduction Initiatives.

CGL now provides nearly £50m worth of counselling, treatment and support services nationwide which were previously carried out by social services or the NHS.

The previous provider, Norfolk Recovery Partnership, was a joint venture between the region’s mental health trust, The Matthew Project, and the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust.

Social enterprise East Coast Community Healthcare (ECCH) provides community and public health services such as district nursing, end-of-life care, and stop smoking services.

ECCH previously said: “We don’t exist to make profits - as a community interest company, all excess ECCH resources are reinvested into our services to the benefit of our communities.”

A global brand

The Virgin brand is one which has a wide reach.

From the health sector, to fitness, banking, aerospace, and entertainment Sir Richard Branson’s brand extends across the globe.

It started in 1970 with a mail-order record business which developed into Virgin Records.

But since then the distinctive red logo has found its way to gyms, airlines, railways, experience days, holidays, hotels, a mobile phone provider, and now even spaceflight under Virgin Galactic.

There are currently more than 60 Virgin Group businesses, which serve more than 53m customers worldwise.

And the £16.6bn organisation has 69,000 employees across 35 countries.

Virgin Care now operates more than 400 health and care services throughout the country, with the vast majority being NHS services commissioned by CCGs.

The organisation treats more than 1m people a year.

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