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Virgin's £128.4m community care takeover on hold as Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust mounts legal challenge

Virgin Care’s £128.4 million bid to take over adult community care for parts of Kent has been put on hold.

Richard Branson’s private care group was to have taken over work at Sittingbourne Memorial Hospital and Sheppey Community Hospital on April 1 after being awarded a seven-year contract by health commissioners in January.

But the current provider, Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust (KCHFT), has launched a legal challenge in the High Court which has stopped contracts being signed.

Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson

It says it is concerned Virgin will be unable to deliver its services in time.

Negotiations have stumbled over computer systems in the hospitals and the fate of staff who will not automatically transfer to Virgin Care.

It is unclear what will happen to staff and patients after the April 1 deadline passes in four weeks’ time.

However, Swale council’s cabinet member for health, Cllr Ken Pugh (Con), said the NHS Swale Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) had confirmed to him that KCHFT has been told to continue to provide services until the situation is resolved “within the next few weeks”.

Lesley Strong, Acting Chief Executive for Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust, explained: “We have been working with the CCG and Virgin Care during the past month on the transfer of services from April 1. We have been concerned that Virgin Care was awarded the contract on price over quality and as further information has become available, our concerns have increased.

Lesley Strong, acting chief executive at Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust
Lesley Strong, acting chief executive at Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust

“We need to seek reassurance that Virgin Care is able to deliver on its bid, in the timescales it indicated, for the safety of patients and staff. We appreciate the CCGs have the right to test the market but this decision needs to be made in full possession of all the facts.

“We have asked the CCGs to provide us with the detail of Virgin’s bid to provide assurance and the CCGs are considering this request. After careful consideration, we’ve asked for the courts to intervene, which means the contracts cannot be signed while this happens.”

The CCG was responsible for awarding the contract to Virgin.

Sheppey Community Hospital, Plover Road, Minster.
Sheppey Community Hospital, Plover Road, Minster.

Its spokesman Lorraine Denoris said: “The CCG received notice on February 19 that proceedings had been started by an unsuccessful bidder in the Technology and Construction Court (part of the High Court of Justice).

“The challenge has been brought under the Public Contracts Regulations 2006.

“This triggers an automatic suspension under Regulation 47G of the Public Contracts Regulations 2006 which requires the CCG to refrain from entering into a contract in respect of the services until the proceedings are determined, discontinued or otherwise disposed of.”

She said the CCG had been advised not to comment further.

Cllr Ken Pugh
Cllr Ken Pugh

KCHFT has issued a similar challenge to the CCG’s sister organisation NHS Dartford, Gravesham and Swanley CCG, which awarded Virgin the contract to run adult care at Gravesham Hospital, Gravesend and the Livingstone Hospital, Dartford.

Virgin Care spokesman Nic Parkes said: “We are currently involved in a procurement process so it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.”

Cllr Pugh said: “My gut reaction is that KCHFT was not up to the job in the first place and has now made a play to delay the contract. As far as I am concerned they are shooting themselves in the foot. It smacks of sour grapes.”

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