Sir Richard Branson’s empire has bought a controlling stake in an NHS walk-in centre operator.

The tycoon’s Virgin Group bought a 75.1 per cent holding in the medical division of Assura Group, which is one of the largest owners of doctors’ surgeries in the UK and also runs pharmacies within clinics.

Assura operates 30 so-called GPCos, which provide healthcare in partnership with groups of GPs. They represent associations with more than 1,500 GPs, employ around 150 staff and provide services to more than three million patients in England.

The GPCos bid for NHS contracts to provide services that include 8am to 8pm GP-led walk-in centres, sexual health clinics and other outpatient care, diagnostic procedures and day care surgery.

Assura said the services offer choice to patients, are often outside normal working hours and are operated with “strict quality assurance mechanisms”.

Sir Richard said: “I am excited that Virgin and Assura will continue to develop this business, working alongside our NHS partners, to bring excellent, high-quality services right to the heart of patients’ communities.”

The deal involved Virgin paying £4m for its majority stake to Assura, which then loaned £4m back to the business in exchange for a 24.9 per cent share of the new venture.

Assura said it would now be able to focus on its core property and pharmacy activities, which are not included in the sale.

The group’s chief executive, Richard Burrell, who will join the board of Virgin Healthcare, said the deal would enable its medical business to receive the level of funding it needs to continue growing.