Private hospitals benefit from furlough despite strong recovery

Private hospitals in the UK have received tens of millions of pounds in furlough cash this year despite benefiting from a post-lockdown boom in NHS work and self-paying patients.

Nasdaq-listed HCA Healthcare, one of the largest private hospital chains in the UK, received up to £3m in furlough payments from the UK government during the first eight months of 2021, according to official data. The group was paid more than £150m by the NHS to treat patients between March 2020 and the same period this year.

Overall the private hospital sector received up to £41m in furlough funding between December 2020 and August this year, according to figures from the Centre for Health and the Public Interest, a think-tank, based on official government data.

Furlough payments were introduced by the UK Treasury to support businesses whose operations were affected by Covid-19 by paying up to two-thirds of staff wages.

More than 1m businesses have taken furlough. However, many companies have returned the cash in recent months as a result of rising revenues and profitability. The UK listed private healthcare group Spire Healthcare, for example, handed back the £220,000 of furlough it took last year.

Private hospitals are benefiting from a surge in demand from patients paying for their own operations this year as more than 5m people wait for health service treatment. They are also profiting from a new £10bn four-year contract treating patients for the NHS, which began in March.

David Rowland, director of the CHPI, said it was “concerning to see that some private hospitals had benefited significantly from taxpayer funding during the pandemic despite seeing revenue and profits soar”.

Patient numbers across private hospitals dropped 81 per cent in April 2020, compared with the same month the previous year, as most work unrelated to Covid-19 was cancelled, according to the Private Healthcare Information Network.

But they have rebounded sharply this year. The number of patients paying for their own operations in private hospitals increased by 30 per cent between April and June compared with the same months in 2019. About 65,000 people paid for their treatment privately during that three-month period.

Nuffield Health, which runs 36 hospitals, claimed £44.8m of furlough last year and £19.7m this year, but it also runs fitness centres, which had to be closed, causing “significant financial impact,” the group said.

Ramsay Health Care, the Australian listed private hospital provider, received up to £505,000 in furlough payments between January and August this year. It benefited from a surge in work from the NHS, which supplies 80 per cent of its revenues in the UK.

The company, which made a failed £1.4bn bid for Spire Healthcare, this year, said the “overwhelming majority of employees had remained in active service” but it had “furloughed a small number of its 7,600 strong workforce”. “These were employees who were extremely clinically vulnerable and therefore required to shield at home,” it said.

HCA said it had “furloughed some of the team whose roles did not directly impact patient safety or the delivery of care to patients”.

Private hospitals also received furlough cash in 2020, although details of claims before December have not been published by the government. Between March and December last year, the government paid all of the private hospitals’ operating costs — including rent, interest and staffing — as the NHS required staff to divert all their time to dealing with the Covid crisis.


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