Outsourcing giant Serco has asked NHS organisations for help filling vacancies at Suffolk Community Healthcare amid concerns over its performance.

The company, which won the £140m three year contract to deliver community services in the county in 2012, currently has 72 vacancies for staff and has sought secondments from the NHS to fill gaps.

HSJ understands the company asked two NHS organisations to supply band 5 nurses and physiotherapists, but the requests were turned down.

Serco is believed to have underbid the price paid to the NHS trust that previously provided services in the area by about £10m and has subsequently said it does not expect to make a profit during the three year deal. Less than a month after taking on the service, Serco announced plans to axe 137 posts.

Commissioners have now launched a review “to address potential patient safety and quality issues” after the company failed to meet key performance targets. Serco has not met 49 indicators out of a total 188 but says it has plans in place to deliver improved performance.

Clinical commissioning groups in the county have issued a contract query, which is the first step in a process that could lead to the company facing fines, and demanded an action plan to address shortfalls.

Problems identified by Ipswich and East Suffolk CCG include “staff capacity, skill mix, workload, succession planning and morale, training, communication, mobile working, care co-ordination centre processes, incidents and near miss incidents”.

Serco is also failing to meet four hour and 72 hour target response times for its community intervention service and is struggling with waiting times for a range of services.

Tracey Lambert, eastern region head of health for Unison, said the problems were no surprise. She added: “Unison has raised with Serco numerous concerns. We are aware the company is unable to fill vacancies and is asking local NHS trusts to second staff to help deliver services.

“Once again, the privatisation of a previously excellent NHS service has caused damage to patient care. Serco ought to be sacked and the services brought back into the NHS, to prevent further damage.”

Sharon Colclough, national director of community services at Serco, said: “We are filling vacancies though a mixture of recruitment, secondments from other NHS organisations and use of bank and agency staff, as all NHS organisations and providers do - we are no different. This is how the health system works, as we are in effect competing for the same staff unless we work collaboratively.”

She added: “Over the past six months we have been undertaking major transformational change in line with the vision for Suffolk Community Healthcare.

“Our patient feedback continues to be excellent in our community hospitals and community teams. Our friends and family test results show that 76 per cent of all patients and carers would recommend us, compared with the national average of 64 per cent across the whole of the NHS.”

Julian Herbert, chief officer of Ipswich and East Suffolk CCG and West Suffolk CCG, said: “This is year one of a three year project. This was always going to be a massive transformation project. We as commissioners wanted to see better patient outcomes and a better way of working with local providers.”

Mr Herbert added: “On the whole, it has gone well with Serco, and yes, there have been some challenges, but I would expect nothing less in a long project with a new provider.”