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Exclusive: Most of Javid’s ‘69 new NHS centres’ may not actually exist

The health secretary last month claimed 69 new centres are ‘up and running’ – but neither his department nor the NHS can say where they are

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Caroline Molloy
21 March 2022, 2.35pm

Health secretary Sajid Javid claimed new community diagnostic centres had opened to ease NHS waiting times in England

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Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News

Just a quarter of the 69 new NHS diagnostic centres that the health secretary last month boasted were “up and running” may have actually opened, openDemocracy can reveal.

Sajid Javid told Parliament on 8 February that scores of “new community diagnostic centres” had “already opened across England in convenient places such as shopping malls and car parks,” where they would be a “major” part of action to clear NHS waiting lists and improve access to cancer screening.

But neither the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) nor NHS England was able to say where the 69 centres are, or provide evidence to substantiate the health secretary’s claim. openDemocracy was eventually directed to a speculative list, published in October, of 57 sites that were due to open this year – but few of these actually appear to be in operation or offering anything significantly new as of 2022.

Of the 17 sites that openDemocracy could confirm had been set up, most appeared to have extensive private involvement. At least one is the joint project of a private equity firm whose parent company has a Conservative Party donor on its board of directors.

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Labour MP Rosie Cooper, who sits on the health and social care committee, called openDemocracy's findings “worrying”.

“In the interest of transparency, I will be asking parliamentary questions to get to the bottom of this confusion,” she said. “I can only hope that the secretary of state, like with the 40 new hospitals, hasn’t overegged the situation and that these diagnostic centres are genuine and not simply a fudged redefinition of dates and places.”

Vague details, missing evidence

The DHSC repeatedly directed us to NHS England, which it said was “best placed” to give us a list of the centres. But NHS England appeared similarly in the dark, pointing only to the shorter list of 57 forthcoming diagnostic centre projects published by the DHSC in a press release in October.

When contacted by openDemocracy, only nine of the NHS organisations overseeing services in the locations listed said they had functioning community diagnostic centres. Eight of these said their ‘centres’ were either privately run mobile scanners in lorries or newly extended opening hours at existing clinics.

The clearest evidence of the government’s claims about high-street community diagnostic centres (CDCs) was at Poole Beales, where a new CDC is offering ophthalmology tests and breast screening to NHS patients in a shopping centre.

Additionally, openDemocracy found evidence of half a dozen NHS sites on the list operating new “extended” or “enhanced” diagnostic services – including at the Nightingale hospital in Exeter, a centre in east London that opened in 2020 and others that seemed to consist of mostly private scanning units parked in hospital grounds. We also found three working centres that appeared to be entirely privately run.

The majority don’t exist, and those that do are substantially in private hands

Six of the projects explicitly told openDemocracy their CDCs would not be open by the end of this month. The Wood Green, Telford, Bodmin and Oldham projects told us they were “on track” or “due” to open in summer 2022, with the Oldham project adding that plans were “at an early stage” and that they “haven’t had the groundbreaking ceremony yet”. Bolton and Humber both told us they couldn’t say yet when their centres would open, with the latter saying: “Apologies, there is no community diagnostic hub as yet. This is a five-year plan.”

Several more projects were unable to confirm any current new offer to patients, but told openDemocracy that something would be happening in future. The New QEII hospital in Welwyn Garden City told us it “expected” to have slightly longer hours in operation by the end of March, and Derbyshire said work “to get the funding utilised” for unspecified “additional services” before the end of March was “ongoing”.

Some were extremely vague on details, with Leicester saying only: “I’m told the service will be on our site,” and Sussex Health saying the developments would be “phased over the next three years”.

Twenty-three of the projects – more than half the 42 identified last year by the DHSC – were unable, or unwilling, to provide openDemocracy with any evidence that they had a community diagnostic centre either open or planned. Some expressed initial enthusiasm to talk to us, only to backtrack: Corbett Hospital, for example, initially said “we’d love to help, we are very proud of our CDC” but subsequently told us that we would have to submit a Freedom of Information request to get any answers about what new services, if any, were currently on offer. A number of Javid’s other centres are similarly understood to refer to new or extended services being opened within existing hospitals, though – again – no evidence could be found that these were up and running.

Many of the project areas appear to have put out very little public information as to the progress of their CDCs, or only the vaguest of briefings. Bath, for example, did not respond to openDemocracy’s enquiries, but subsequently issued a press release saying it had “progressed plans” for its centre at the formerly private-run Sulis Hospital.

NHS cash for the private sector

More than half the project areas we contacted refused to answer any questions about private sector provision but, of the 19 that did, the majority confirmed that some of what was being offered had been outsourced to the private sector, including MRI and CT scans, endoscopies and blood tests.

In at least one case, the answer given contradicted publicly available information. At Brighton Football Ground, a high-profile CDC repeatedly referred to by Javid, local NHS commissioners told us the services were “NHS services and NHS provision” – but, according to the Care Quality Commission, the site is run by Medical Imaging Partnership, which says the same on its own website.

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In Somerset, the CDC is run by Rutherford Diagnostics. Boris Johnson visited Rutherford’s Somerset centre last November and praised its model. Rutherford’s Somerset site is the “first of five” it plans to launch in partnership with private equity firm Equitix.

Tory donor Reade Griffiths is on the board of directors of the firm’s owner, Tetragon.

Rutherford was unwilling to tell openDemocracy if the Somerset centre was currently running or answer any questions, though information online suggests it is at least open. Another centre, in a business park in Oxford, is provided by US firm Perspectum.

Other companies involved in, or planned to be involved in, other centres on the NHS list, include Practice Plus (formerly Care UK), HCRG (formerly Virgin Care), Health Share, Cobalt Health, Medneo, GP Primary, Remedy Healthcare, Partnering Health/PHL, Central Surrey Health, Living Well, Physiological Measurements Limited/PML, Endocare and Imaging Matters.

Several NHS areas told openDemocracy that they were paying the private sector to provide mobile scanning units in their grounds as a way of meeting COVID-prevention guidance that states diagnostic centres must have “a separate entrance such that neither staff nor patients attending the hub are required to enter the main hospital building”.

Tony O’Sullivan, co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public, told openDemocracy: “What’s going on isn’t partnership, but parasitism – sucking billions of pounds out of the NHS. The private sector is very happy for the NHS to be left completely weakened but not dead, a £150bn funding cash cow that they can dip into when they want to.”

Scanners and other diagnostic units have always been supplied by a range of large electronics manufacturers, including the likes of Siemens and Royal Phillips.

But private firms’ move into running these units, rather than just building their kit, means the sector stands to gain even more from the £10bn in government cash that has been committed to the CDCs initiative.

What’s going on isn’t partnership, but parasitism – sucking billions of pounds out of the NHS

A web search for ‘community diagnostic centres’ uncovers a plethora of company websites explicit in offering “ready to deploy” diagnostic units. For instance, InHealth, which has been running mobile scanning units for a number of years, currently runs 11 private diagnostic centres. Its website states: “All our centres can be NHS-branded.”

Last September, trade publication Healthcare Markets UK described the community diagnostic centres announcements as “ushering in a new dawn for partnerships between the independent sector and the NHS”. It said the “exciting developments” would provide “significant opportunities” for the private sector to “play a key role in the investment, design and implementation of these new services”.

There are signs, too, that this could extend beyond provision of diagnostic services. Rutherford, for example, has a ten-year “strategic partnership” with technology provider Philips. That firm states it is “partnering with healthcare providers to pioneer Community Diagnostic Centres (CDC)” and describes its “ultimate vision” as one in which privately provided centres provide a much wider range of services to NHS patients: “Cardiovascular, fitness, wellness and health themes across radiology, cardiology, oncology, respiratory and sleep health spaces. They could also support [...] general practice, pharmacy and tele-dentistry services, supporting the elderly and patients with underlying health conditions by improving access to expert health services whilst reducing travel.”

And pharmacy chain Boots – now owned by US firm Walgreens – told MPs last week that it was in talks with “partners” to rebrand some branches as community diagnostic centres. The company’s healthcare director said Boots had a “a strong ambition to expand our current pharmacy offering beyond pharmacy and broadly into healthcare”.

The £10bn on offer to “increase diagnostic capacity” is nearly three times the £3.7bn figure that was set aside for the Conservative Party’s controversial promise of “40 new hospitals”. Bids for the cash from existing NHS hospital trusts have been massively oversubscribed, with nine out of ten of the latest round set to be unsuccessful.

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