Published: 06/12/2001, Volume III, No. 5784 Page 5

BUPA's Redwood centre in Redhill, Surrey, will carry out an extra 5,000 operations a year for the NHS from next April, in a deal that will see the hospital effectively converted to an NHS treatment and diagnostic centre.

The unit will be managed by BUPA with a mix of its own staff and around 20 NHS staff from the existing day case unit at Surrey and Sussex Healthcare trust.

BUPA operational director Richard Jones said terms and conditions for both groups of staff were 'broadly comparable' and staff at both sites had been assured their existing employment position would be protected. 'This is effectively a prototype for us, an opportunity to test some concepts, and if it works it will hopefully encourage other similar publicprivate partnerships, ' he added.

Chief executive of Surrey and Sussex Healthcare trust Ken Cunningham said the deal was a unique and pragmatic approach to free up capacity. Staff, he said, were excited by the plans and described their work for BUPA as a form of 'voluntary secondment'.

Though Surrey was not one of the proposed centres identified earlier this year, a Department of Health spokesperson said Redwood presented a new opportunity to meet the chronic capacity problems facing the South East.

Earlier this year, Redwood was one of seven hospitals used to take 1,059 patients across East Surrey health authority off waiting lists.

One of the project leads, Karen Bryson, then assistant director of performance development at the authority, said: 'It worked very well.

I think the most important thing is that you develop partnerships with the private sector.

'It was about selecting the right patients for treatment with the skills the private sector could offer, but I do not think you can treat it as a short-term solution. '

Though the deal ensured costs were lower than the usual private sector rate and comparable and sometimes cheaper than the NHS, she said the HA was in a strong negotiating position because of the degree of spare capacity in the private sector at the time. 'I do not think the deal is going to be repeated. '

Clinical governance will also be an issue for the NHS. According to Ms Bryson's experience of her own project, quality was 'exceptional'.

Currently, the Commission for Health Improvement is responsible for reviewing care of NHS patients, including those who will be treated at Redwood - though as yet it does not have the legal right to enter private premises.

But the deal, announced on a day of action by public sector unions, has drawn criticism from Unison and the GMB, concerned because the three pilot schemes which should clarify how transfer of NHS staff to private companies will operate, have yet to start.