• £642,000 of goodwill payments made to ambulance workers by CCG
  • Chief finance officer says: “We are not setting a precendent”
  • CCG admits “there was frailty in the subcontracting market”

Commissioners in Sussex paid a total of £642,000 in wages to former NHS staff after their private company employer ceased trading, HSJ can reveal.

Alan Beasley, the chief finance officer for High Weald and Lewes Clinical Commissioning Group, said he would be “exploring all avenues” to recover the cash from Docklands Medical Services, which provided patient transport services in Sussex until it ceased trading last summer.

He insisted that the payment will not set a precedent for other private providers to expect a bail out.

The circumstances of the payment were “unique”, Mr Beasley told HSJ. “We are not setting a precedent in terms of other private sector contracts that we might have. Those were ex gratia payments, not contractual payments.”

The 71 former South East Coast Ambulance Service Foundation Trust workers at the centre of the dispute twice lost their jobs when two private patient transport companies – VM Langfords and Docklands Medical Services – ceased trading in rapid succession last summer.

He said: “These are poorly paid NHS employees who were transferred to one company, VM Langford, which went belly up in strange circumstances and then transferred to another company [Docklands Medical Services] that went belly up in strange circumstances.”

Both companies had been subcontracted by Coperforma, which the CCG awarded a £62.6m five-year contract to provide patient transport services for the whole of Sussex. The contract began last April, when the employees transferred from South East Coast Ambulance Service Trust.

“The commissioners felt that making the payment [on behalf of Docklands Medical Services] was the right thing for them to do, given these were ex-NHS staff who had been messed around”, Mr Beasley said.

Docklands Medical Services ceased trading in August, and its services were taken over by other subcontractors.

Coperforma agreed to hand the contract back to commissioners last October, after the Care Quality Commission served it with six improvement notices following concerns about patient safety. However it has continued to manage the contract.

The CCG paid the wages of the 71 ambulance workers from August until the end of February 2017, Mr Beasley said.

The total £642,000 cost will be spread across each of the CCGs in the area on a “fair shares basis”, Mr Beasley said.

The trust took on the wages bill from 1 March 2017, and it will officially take over the patient transport contract for Sussex on 1 April.

Mr Beasley said the patient transport contract was originally awarded to Coperforma, because it “had the technology and framework to increase or decrease capacity [by subcontracting] at short notice. That is the thing that NHS organisations can’t do.”

But he added: “In retrospect there was a fair degree of frailty in the subcontracting market that we hadn’t envisaged when the contract was let.”

The fact that Coperforma was later revealed to be the sole bidder for the contract did not affect the decision of the CCG to go with company, Mr Beasley said.

“Nobody knew there was only one bidder. The market didn’t know. Coperforma didn’t know. The evaluation bid was carried out as if there had been numerous bidders.”

A spokesman for Coperforma said: “DMS agreed to accept, without questioning, the financial terms of the Coperforma contract to provide patient transport services to the people of Sussex. They clearly considered the terms were more than appropriate to sustain the contract.”

Docklands Medical Services has been approached for comment.