A LEAKED email has revealed that a £53m contract to provide prison health care went to the cheapest tender from a private company, even though the existing NHS provider offered a better quality service.

The email from Les Morgan, the chief operating officer of the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Trust to NHS commissioners – seen by The Northern Echo – asks for more information on how the contract was awarded.

Mr Morgan asks why the contract was awarded to Care UK even though the NHS provider “was judged better than the successful bidder on quality, delivery and risk.”

He adds that price was “the only element the successful bidder beat us on”.

Yet the North-East Offender Health Commissioning Unit, which awarded the contract, has insisted that it followed “a competitive procurement process which was robust and transparent and considered both quality of service and value for money”.

On Thursday, The Northern Echo revealed that Care UK, which works closely with the NHS to provide a range of health services for about 500,000 people, was awarded the £53.2m three-year contract to provide primary health care to about 5,000 prison inmates at eight North- East prisons and young offender establishments.

The fact that the contract went to Care UK – more than a year after the wife of the then chairman of Care UK donated £21,000 to the office of the then Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley – was criticised by Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington and member of the Health Select Committee who said it represented a “clear conflict of interest”.

Mr Morris has now written to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, seeking “a categorical assurance” that there has been no conflict in interest in the development of Government health policy and the awarding of NHS contracts.

Care UK spokeswoman Sheila Roberts said: “We are confident that our bid combines high quality care and value for money.”

However, last night Mr Morris said: “David Cameron promised that the NHS would be safe in his hands. After only eight months as Prime Minister we are already seeing the privatisation by stealth of key NHS services.

“It is outrageous that private companies can win NHS contracts by undercutting inhouse providers on price, while the quality and delivery of patient care suffers.

“It is clear that Tory-led reforms are not about improving patient care, but are about the Tories’ vested interests in private healthcare.”

Glenn Turp, Northern director of the Royal College of Nursing, spoke out after learning that two other NHS contracts in the region had gone to private firms.

Assura Health secured a deal to provide NHS sex health services in the Teesside area, while triage nurses who assess patients at out-of-hours urgent care centres are being transferred to Northern Doctors.

Mr Turp said “Another day, another privatisation of a local NHS service. The question has to be, is price rather than quality becoming the main driver in delivering NHS services?”

A meeting at Hardwick Hall, Sedgefield, County Durham, attended by representatives from the NHS, Care UK and NHS prison staff took place yesterday.

The Northern Echo was declined entry and no one would officially comment.

However, one nurse said: “Basically we have been told that everything is going to be the same, but we do not believe them and we do not believe it can be if services are going to be delivered cheaper.

“If the same thing was happening elsewhere in the NHS, people would be making a lot of noise.”

A Tory spokeswoman said Mr Lansley did not solicit the donation from the wife of the former chairman of Care UK and said donations from private individuals did not influence policy-making decisions.

A Care UK spokeswoman said the company had an excellent track record in providing prison health services across the UK, earning a commendation for the NHS in Brixton after a large reduction in prison deaths.

She said that could not have been achieved if the service provided was solely about achieving the lowest cost.