Internet campaigners opposed to the privatisation of the NHS have had a frank exchange of views with North-East health bosses. Health and Education Editor Barry Nelson, who had a ringside seat, reports

ALTHOUGH it wasn’t strictly speaking a “flashmob” that gathered outside the entrance to one of the region’s new clinical commissioning groups recently, it certainly felt like one.

The Oxford Dictionary definition of a flashmob is: “A public gathering of complete strangers organised via the internet who perform a pointless act and then disappear again.”

In this case, it was seven like-minded people who were among 550 who had signed an internet petition against NHS privatisation.

Brought together by the internet, they met in the car park of Sedgefield Community Hospital, which doubles as administrative headquarters of the new Darlington Dales, Easington and Sedgefield (DDES) Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).

Largely made up of local GPs, the group took over responsibility for buying hospital care on April 1.

Like a flashmob, apart from a husband and wife, none of the group knew each other. Their only link was that they had all responded to a request from internet campaign group 38 Degrees to petition their local CCG.

According to the group’s website, “avalanches begin when they reach the tipping point angle of 38 Degrees”.

Among several other causes, 38 Degrees is urging people to sign an e-petition that opposes further privatisation of the NHS.

Brandishing a copy of the petition was Michael Hamp, 69, a retired community worker from Frosterley, County Durham.

The three main policies 38 Degrees supporters want CCGs to follow is to “protect local NHS services and consult patients properly before making changes, spend money wisely and don’t do deals with irresponsible private companies and adopt policies and a constitution which reflect these values”.

While the Government said the NHS was safe in its hands, 38 Degrees said it wanted to privatise and fragment the NHS.

Andrea Phillips, 50, from Newton Aycliffe, who joined the protest, said: “I firmly believe that these changes proposed by the Tory Government are not in favour of the NHS.”

Ruth Evans, from Ferryhill, said she wanted to help the CCG do what was right for the NHS.

She said: “As an ex-patient, I would not like to see it privatised. We want to work with the CCG to protect patients.”

The seven petitioners were ushered into the boardroom, where they were welcomed by CCG chairwoman Annie Dolphin, clinical chief officer Dr Stewart Findlay and governor David Taylor-Gooby.

Mr Hamp told them that safeguarding the NHS was important to all the petitioners.

DR Findlay, a GP in Bishop Auckland and a strong advocate of doctors being given greater control of NHS budgets, said the CCG was determined to listen to people.

He said: “We want public engagement to be a golden thread right through our organisation.

All our practices should now have a patient group which will elect representatives onto Locality Groups (which have responsibility for a particular area within the CCG). Every time we change [a way of treating a group of patients], we will have public involvement.”

Ms Dolphin said the CCG had three lay members on its governing body and said they would be able to consult the public “to a far greater extents than the primary care trust managed in the past”.

On the issue of signing contracts with private health providers rather than NHS groups, Dr Findlay said that for the first time since the 1990s, the CCG, on behalf of the NHS in County Durham, had put in a block contract to buy services from its main local hospital, the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust.

He said: “This will mean our NHS hospital will be guaranteed a level of income, no matter what happens to services in that year. We will not be trading on a payment-by-results basis.”

Dr Findlay said that guarantee would allow the CCG to begin to move more services into the community without damaging the hospital trust. He said: “It is a completely new way of working, which protects our NHS supplies.”

Mr Taylor-Gooby said that while he did not believe in the privatisation of the NHS, there were Government rules they had to follow.

“I believe most patients want a high-quality service from their local provider, but we have to leave our options open.

“Just because a service has got NHS on it, does not mean it is necessarily the best service.

Think of Mid-Staffs (the scandal at Mid- Staffordshire Hospital, in which large numbers of patients were allegedly neglected). It is not a bad thing if you can get better value for patients.”

MR Taylor-Gooby said the private sector was an extremely minor player in the market and that he did not see it changing in the near future.

Dr Findlay said: “We would not always go for the cheapest. Quality is more important than price.”

He said he hoped we were “less likely to see a Mid-Staffs” because doctors in the CCG “should have no fear to say what is right and what is wrong”.

Dr Stewart said the new NHS structure had also cut management costs.

He said: “The old PCT had running costs of about £125 a head. Our running costs are £25 a head.”

After the meeting, Mr Hamp said it was a good start, but gave notice that 38 Degrees members would remain vigilant.

He said: “After all, privatisation of the NHS was not in the Government’s manifesto.”