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Local hospitals will be able to quickly activate surge capacity in the independent sector as part of the national COVID response, under a new deal announced by the NHS.

A three-month agreement with multiple independent healthcare organisations will see their staff and facilities put on standby to support the NHS should the Omicron variant lead to unsustainable levels of hospitalisations or staff absences.

The deal, which has been struck under direction from the Secretary of State, comes on top of the NHS creating additional capacity within its own hospitals. Hospitals have been asked to identify areas such as gyms and education centres to create ‘super surge’ wards on top of their usual surge capacity.

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Nightingale hubs are also being created in the grounds of some hospitals as part of the drive to create up to 4,000 ‘super surge’ beds.

The deal will allow NHS Trusts to send a wider range of patients to the independent sector for treatment, including those requiring some forms of cancer surgery and other care not normally delivered under existing arrangements.

The independent sector surge capacity would only be triggered if COVID patients requiring treatment were to threaten the NHS’ ability to provide urgent care, the NHS has confirmed.

NHS England Chief Operating Officer and COVID Incident Director Sir David Sloman said: “NHS staff have done an incredible job over the last year recovering elective treatment levels and then keeping non-COVID services going as pressures have built.

“As part of this millions of patients have already got their tests and treatment quicker thanks to our existing deal with independent providers.

“With the high number of Omicron cases placing even greater pressure on hospitals now and over the coming weeks, this deal, struck under direction from the Secretary of State, means as many people as possible can continue to get the care they need.

“It also places independent health providers on standby to provide further help should hospitals face unsustainable levels of hospitalisations or staff absences.

“Just like the Nightingale hubs being created across the country, we hope never to need their support but it will be there if needed. The public can play their part in helping us to help you getting vaccinated against COVID – it is the best way to protect yourself, your family and your friends.”

Independent sector capacity has been used extensively throughout the pandemic and currently overall use is at almost 115 percent of pre-pandemic levels, including over 470,000 day cases, almost 2,800,000 surgical procedures, and over 500,000 diagnostic tests in the last year.

NHS England has struck the deal with the following independent sector health providers: Practice Plus Group, Spire Healthcare, Nuffield Health, Circle Health Group, Ramsay Health Care UK, Healthcare Management Trust, One Healthcare, Horder Healthcare, Aspen Healthcare, and KIMS Hospital.

The new deal with these independent organisations came into effect from 10 January and will run until the end of March, at which point local arrangements with those providers will resume.

If NHS Trusts or systems need to trigger the surge element of the new deal, routine services at an independent sector site will be suspended to make facilities and staff available to the health service.

If the surge capacity were to be used, the NHS would seek to return to current arrangements, allowing independent sector hospitals to resume usual activities including treating NHS patients, as soon as possible.

David Hare, Chief Executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network (IHPN), commented: “Independent sector providers have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the NHS throughout the pandemic, playing a key role in enabling vital NHS care including cancer and cardiology treatment to continue, whilst also maintaining services for private patients.

“The arrangements being announced today, in response to a call by government and the NHS for further independent sector support during the Omicron wave of COVID-19, will help to bolster planned NHS care including cancer treatment this winter whilst ensuring that independent sector providers can continue to treat private patients.

“The arrangements will also provide the NHS with additional targeted support in the event that local NHS pressures are deemed as unsustainable.”

NHS England recently set out its 10 priorities for 2022/23, which includes investing in the NHS workforce, responding to the coronavirus pandemic effectively, and harnessing the power of digital technologies to improve patient outcomes.

A big focus for NHS England this year will be to restore services and clear patient backlogs caused by COVID-19.

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