Britain puts private health firms on high alert as Omicron threatens NHS

  • England NHS strikes deal with private health firms
  • Private companies to provide cancer treatment
  • Facilities will also be made available if needed
  • Gove: UK not yet in a position to live with COVID-19

LONDON, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Britain on Monday put the biggest private health companies on high alert to deliver crucial treatments such as cancer surgery should Omicron overwhelm National Health Service hospitals in England.

The United Kingdom's death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic stands at 150,154, the world's seventh worst official COVID toll after the United States, Brazil, India, Russia, Mexico and Peru.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has bet on refraining from lockdowns to deal with the Omicron variant which in recent weeks has swept across the United Kingdom, albeit with death rates significantly lower than previous waves.

In a sign of just how stretched the National Health Service could become, Health Secretary Sajid Javid ordered England's NHS to strike a 3-month deal with private health companies to allow patients to get treatments such as cancer surgery outside.

"Millions of patients have already got their tests and treatment quicker thanks to our existing deal with independent providers," said David Sloman, NHS England chief operating officer and COVID incident director.

“It also places independent health providers on standby to provide further help should hospitals face unsustainable levels of hospitalisations or staff absences," Sloman said.

The agreement includes Practice Plus Group, Spire Healthcare, Nuffield Health, Circle Health Group, Ramsay Health Care UK, Healthcare Management Trust, One Healthcare, Horder Healthcare, Aspen Healthcare and KIMS Hospital, the NHS said.

Circle CEO Paolo Pieri said that since the first COVID wave in March 2020, its hospitals had supported the NHS by performing urgent, life-saving operations and treatments for over 400,000 NHS patients.

"We stand ready to support the NHS in its time of need," Pieri said.

Spire (SPI.L) said the final details of the new contract still had to be agreed. The deal expires on March 31.

"The agreement in principle is for payment by activity based on NHS tariff, with minimum value underpins," Spire said.

"If required, subject to meeting agreed criteria, Spire Healthcare will grant NHSE access to 100% of its facilities and teams on a local, regional or national basis in the event of a surge of COVID-19 patients in NHS hospitals in England."

There is still pressure on British hospitals and the country is not yet in a position to say it can live with COVID-19, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said on Monday.

"We are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with COVID and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating," he told Sky News.

"But it's absolutely vital to recognise that we are not there yet... there will be some difficult weeks ahead."

Reporting by Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kate Holton

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