Hancock condemned for calling NHS GP practices 'private companies'

Matt Hancock has attributed the success of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to the involvement of 'private companies' such as NHS GP practices - in comments condemned by the BMA as a 'gross and deliberate misinterpretation'.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

GP leaders have reacted strongly to the health and social care secretary's comments - warning they are ‘increasingly concerned’ over the government’s agenda in referring to general practice as part of the private sector.

In evidence to the House of Commons health and social care select committee this week, Mr Hancock said the success of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign was down to the amazing work of ‘private companies’, such as GPs and pharmacies.

At the 16 March session Mr Hancock said: ‘There is a false dichotomy between public and private and we have learned over the last year that arguments based on public is good, private is bad are completely wrong.

COVID-19 vaccine rollout

‘I want to learn from the vaccine rollout which we couldn’t have done without the amazing work of private companies. And I put at the top of the list obviously the pharmaceutical companies but also the GPs and the pharmacists who are at the core of the rollout.’

Asked whether private companies would be allowed to sit on the boards of integrated care systems (ICSs) being rolled out across the NHS under reform plans set out by the government in a recent white paper, Mr Hancock added: 'You can’t in law say there must be no private voice if you do also want to allow for the voice of GPs, because they are private sector.’

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline: 'The characterisation of GP practices delivering the vaccine programme as private providers is a gross and deliberate misinterpretation.

'GP practices are independent contractors, a model that the government supports and promotes, and there is a clear distinction between independent contractor organisations purely set up to deliver NHS services and who are commissioned solely by the NHS, and truly private commercial providers which are businesses set up to provide health services and which would, and do, exist with or without the NHS commissioning them.

Foundation of the NHS

'The reason practices have been so successful in the rollout of the vaccine is because of their long history of delivering vaccination campaigns with the NHS. GP practices have been the foundation of the NHS since its inception.'

He added: 'They are local organisations that are at the heart of their communities and know and understand the patients they serve and make decisions based on that – they are not private companies that make business decisions based on profits or other considerations outside of the best interests of their patients.'

Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK) GP spokesperson Dr Ellen Welch said: ‘The health secretary’s comments that "NHS GPs are the private sector" shows a lack of understanding of the very health service he heads.

‘NHS GPs may be run as private businesses, but they differ from non-NHS private GPs in that they do not compete for patients or for profit. They work to NHS contracts, follow NHS guidelines and see NHS patients.

‘The success of the vaccine rollout is down to NHS GPs who know their patients and have worked an at accelerated pace alongside their normal work, at very short notice, to make this programme work - and all done on a shoestring, in comparisons to the millions given to private scheme such as Test and Trace.’

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall recently warned that general practice must be the foundation of any successful ICS as they take over CCG budgets and commissioning powers.

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