Council 'misled' NHS trusts over £104m contract, says judge

Lancashire County Council awarded a 104m healthcare contract to Virgin Care
Lancashire County Council awarded a 104m healthcare contract to Virgin Care

A judge has slammed Lancashire County Council for “misleading” NHS Trusts over the £104m Virgin contract.

The comments come from a High Court case brought by two Lancashire NHS trusts against the county council in relation to the awarding of a contract for community healthcare services to private firm Virgin.

Once the council had made the decision Lancashire Care NHS Trust and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals Trust – who previously held the contract for services such as school nurses – took legal action.

Last week Mr Justice Stuart-Smith blocked the awarding of the contract to Virgin after concerns were raised about the tendering process.

The ruling means the process may now have to be run all over again and it could also expose the council to legal action brought by Virgin.

The judge said there was “no consistency” in the way in which the bids put in by Virgin and the NHS trusts were discussed by the council’s marking panel.

He ruled that members of the panel were not collectively shown notes of the marking process until the NHS trusts launched legal action.

The judge added: “Later, when the trusts were pressing for information, the council misled them by first redacting the dates and then backdating three of the individual members’ evaluation notes.

“To describe this, as the council did, as merely a ‘regrettable episode of poor administration’ is, to my mind, an unacceptable understatement.”

The judge said the council’s reasoning process was so unclear, it was impossible to say whether the marking process had been infected by “manifest error”.

Lancashire County Council did not comment specifically on the accusations it had ‘misled’ the trusts but issued a statement on the day of the judgement.

In it, County Coun Shaun Turner, cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “Putting services out to the market is not a political decision, it is simply part of what the County Council is required to do in order to meet its legal obligations.

“Although we’re disappointed in the outcome of this judgement, we are reassured with the exception of the moderation element the County Council’s procurement processes was appropriate and that individual panel members were not found to be at fault.

“However, following this judgement, we accept that we cannot award the contract at this time.

“We will not be re-running the procurement or inviting new bids as only the moderation, the final step in the procurement process, was considered to be flawed. We are now considering our options about the next steps.

“Our existing contract with LCFT and Blackpool NHS Teaching Hospitals Trust runs until March 2019 so there will be no disruption to these services.

“We recognise this is a stressful time for our health visitors and school nurses. We value the vital role they play and will continue to support them in delivering the best outcomes for our children and families.”