Rishi Sunak has appointed a private healthcare lobbyist with links to a series of controversial clients to advise him in Downing Street, raising concerns over further privatisation within the NHS.
Bill Morgan, a founding partner of the PR and lobbying firm Evoke Incisive Health, joined No 10 as a health policy adviser earlier this month where he is believed to be helping drive through NHS efficiencies.
He was previously an adviser to the Department of Health and Social Care for two months but continued as senior counsel to Incisive Health at the same time, according to his LinkedIn page, raising questions over 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 the health service, saying: “When it comes to the NHS, we all share the same ambition … to give everybody 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 he was registered with a private GP who charges £250 for a consultation.
Morgan’s arrival at No 10 will throw the 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 in-house NHS providers and a social enterprise firm 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 another £440,000 and at least £243,000 more was diverted from frontline NHS services to cover legal fees.
Another Incisive Health client, the private mental healthcare provider Cygnet, ran Whorlton Hall specialist hospital in County Durham, where 10 staff were arrested in 2019 after a BBC Panorama documentary exposed cruelty and abuse towards 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 placed into special measures in September and ordered to improve safety after its overall performance was judged to be “inadequate”, after an inspection by the Care Quality Commission in June when inspectors said patients told them they were being “bullied and abused by their peers and staff members” and that they did not feel safe on wards.
Sara Gorton, head of health at the union Unison, said: “Appointments like this will do nothing to reassure the public that the NHS isn’t in the government’s sight-lines for more privatisation. Ministers should be putting patients’ interests first rather than ideology and private businesses.”
The Guardian understands that Morgan, whose appointment was cleared by the Cabinet Office’s propriety 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 health companies.
Evoke Incisive Health represents several businesses that have won major contracts within the NHS, 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 who work within it. It will never be for sale to the private sector.” Evoke Incisive Health declined to comment.