Private hospital groups are on standby to provide thousands of beds and operating theatre space this winter amid growing nervousness over Conservative vulnerability to attacks on the state of the health service.
David Cameron is personally overseeing detailed contingency planning in a bid to avoid a politically perilous capacity crisis in the cold months ahead, according to government and NHS officials.
At least four big private hospital groups have supplied data on capacity at the health department’s request. The audit, on a scale rarely undertaken, shows the sector can take up to 3,000 NHS patients a week in England for outpatient and inpatient non-emergency work.
The prime minister has demanded weekly updates on accident and emergency admissions – a key predictor of system strains – and is holding regular discussions with Jeremy Hunt, health secretary.
Insiders say Mr Cameron’s unusually hands-on approach reflects a fear that any rise in waiting lists, or reports of patients stuck on trolleys awaiting treatment, would be blamed on the disruption caused by the government’s health reforms, and the tightest budget squeeze in NHS history.
Private companies generally supply care at the same tariff paid to NHS providers. As a result, it can be cheaper to use the private sector than to pay overtime to NHS consultants.
Mr Cameron’s team fears Ed Miliband might be able to exploit a cold winter, combining an attack on high energy prices with criticism of the Tories’ stewardship of the NHS. The Labour leader prepared the ground for an attack on a hitherto well defended Tory flank on Wednesday, asking Mr Cameron to “guarantee there will not be an accident and emergency crisis this winter”.
Mr Cameron and Mr Hunt believe they can counter with what Tory insiders call “the Burnham strategy”: trying to blame Andy Burnham, former Labour health secretary and now shadow health secretary.
Mr Burnham said: “The evidence is clear that the NHS has deteriorated on this government’s watch. If they continue to blame everyone but themselves for what is going wrong it will not wash with voters.”
The health department said: “As part of winter planning, trusts consider bed capacity, including what role, if any, the independent sector has to play – as they have done for at least a decade.”