Private firms are narrowly winning the race for contracts to run Darzi centres, the DoH has admitted, despite earlier claims that GPs were ahead.
National director of the GP access programme for England Dr Mike Warburton told GP that private firms made up 40 per cent of shortlisted bidders, compared with 36 per cent from GPs. A further 13 per cent are from consortia of GPs and private providers.
Dr Warburton said the 'vast majority' of GP-led health centre contracts were on track to be signed by early January, and operational by the end of March. 'Outside London I'm only aware of one or two slipping beyond that target,' he said.
He added that commercial enthusiasm for the contracts remained undented and bidders had not been pulling out once they were shortlisted. 'The credit crunch hasn't really affected this procurement,' he said.
Dr Warburton was speaking as health secretary Alan Johnson opened the first of the new health centres, in Bradford. The Hillside Bridge Healthcare Centre is run by Local Care Direct, a social enterprise that provides out-of-hours care, already manages one local practice, and is shortlisted for seven others.
The centre expects to grow its patient list from 2,500 to 6,000 over five years. It will also provide walk-in services and bookable appointments for patients registered at other practices.
Dr John Givans, secretary of Bradford LMC, said the new centre would provide much needed capacity in a part of Bradford characterised by open-but-full lists. 'It's exactly the place where something of this sort is needed. We don't think it's a threat.'
But Fiona Reid, manager of nearby Farrow Medical Centre, feared some of its patients would leave and that the practice could be charged if its patients see GPs at Hillside, as it is when patients go to A&E.
The PCT said that Hillside's list size would determine pay for standard GP services, and pay for walk-in services would be linked to activity. It added that Local Care Direct would receive a guaranteed minimum income for two years.
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