Rishi Sunak has appointed a private healthcare lobbyist with links to a string of controversial clients to advise him in Downing Street, raising concerns about further privatization within the NHS.
Bill Morgan, a founder of PR and lobbying firm Evoke Incisive Health, became the 10th health policy adviser earlier this month, where he is expected to help drive through NHS efficiency.
He was previously an adviser to the Department of Health and Social Care for two months, but continued as a senior adviser to Incisive Health at the same time, according to his LinkedIn page, raising questions about a potential conflict of interest between his public role and the company’s clients.
In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry last week, Sunak underlined his commitment to healthcare, saying: “When it comes to the NHS, we all share the same ambition … to give everyone in the country the best possible care, free at the point of use .”
However, there has been renewed focus on the Prime Minister’s views on private healthcare after the Guardian reported that he was registered with a private GP who charges £250 for a consultation.
Morgan’s arrival at No 10 will shine a spotlight on some of his more controversial clients during his nine years at Evoke Incisive Health. Virgin Care was one when it controversially sued the NHS after losing out to a rival group of internal NHS providers and a social enterprise on an £82m contract to provide children’s medical services in Surrey in 2016.
The company, which claimed there were “serious flaws in the procurement process”, later secured an out-of-court settlement. Six clinical commissioning groups and NHS England paid Virgin Care £1.57m. Surrey County Council handed over a further £440,000 and at least £243,000 more was diverted from frontline NHS services to cover legal expenses.
Another Incisive Health client, private mental health provider Cygnet, ran Whorlton Hall specialist hospital in County Durham, where 10 staff were arrested in 2019 after a BBC Panorama documentary revealed cruelty and abuse of people with autism and learning disabilities. The 17-bed hospital, which it had taken over months before, was later closed.
Another Cygnet hospital, Bury Hudson, was put into special measures in September and ordered to improve safety after its overall performance was judged to be “inadequate”, following an inspection by the Care Quality Commission in June when inspectors said that patients told them that they were “bullied and abused by peers and staff” and that they did not feel safe on the wards.
Sara Gorton, head of health at the Unison trade union, said: “Appointments like this will do nothing to reassure the public that the NHS is not in the government’s crosshairs for more privatisation. Ministers should put patients’ interests first instead of ideology and private businesses.”
The Guardian understands that Morgan, whose appointment was approved by the Cabinet Office’s compliance and ethics team, has now sold his stake in the firm.
Morgan’s former company also represents the Independent Healthcare Providers Network, which was formed in 2005 to provide a voice for private healthcare companies.
Evoke Incisive Health represents several businesses that have won major NHS contracts, including Orchard Therapeutics, Guardant Health and Spirit Health. They have also worked with the General Medical Council, the Global Lung Cancer Coalition and the campaign group 38 degrees.
A government source said: “This government has delivered record investment in the NHS and record numbers of doctors and nurses working within it. It will never be for sale to the private sector.” Evoke Incisive Health declined to comment.