Fear over Richard Branson’s bid to run mental health service

Richard Branson's Virgin Care group is among the bidders to run one English county's child mental health services, sparking concern that vital social care expertise could be lost.

Richard Branson

Richard Branson’s Virgin Care is among the bidders to run one English county’s child mental health services, sparking concern that vital social care expertise could be lost.

Last week Community Care reported that NHS Devon had put a number of children’s services out to tender, including child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) and short breaks for disabled children.

Three private groups are in the running to take over the service: Richard Branson’s Virgin Care, which was known as Assura Medical until this month when it adopted the famous Virgin branding; Serco and Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust; and a consortium consisting of Devon Partnership NHS Trust, Barnardo’s, Young Devon and Interserve.

One children and families social worker told Community Care the move was “deeply unsettling”. “What experience does a company like Virgin have of running services for vulnerable children? There is a danger that vital social work experience and expertise could be lost,” he said.

Lucie Russell, director of campaigns and policy at YoungMinds, said she found it “concerning that the companies have no direct experience of running children’s services”.

“We would hope that any decision to award the contract is based on the key priority of who is most qualified to provide the best service. We would also like to see the chosen provider show a willingness to continue to invest and develop the service to provide the best care they can for children and young people,” she added.

“The question of checks, balances and safeguards are crucial here,” said Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

She said BASW would like reassurance that the service will automatically include social workers, as Camhs does, and more detail about the lines of accountability between the council and provider.

It would be a backward step if the service was “dominated by the medical model at the expense of the social model,” Mansuri added, claiming Camhs has “sometimes been guilty of only taking referrals where children have a defined ‘medicalised’ mental health concern”.

She said previous examples of privatised public services have not always delivered best value.

“While many of our members report that there is not enough provision from Camhs to meet the level of need for this kind of service, how can we be sure that a privately operated service will not simply fall into the same trap when it comes to resources?” she asked.

BASW has already expressed serious concern over the privatisation of the NHS in response to the government’s controversial health and social care bill, now set to become law next month.

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