PRIVATE healthcare providers are to be asked to take on NHS patients to ease the strain on hospitals.

Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, January 21 NHS medical director for England Sir Bruce Keogh said more needed to be done to help hospitals cope in the winter months.

Late last month all non-urgent operations and staff leave at Worcestershire Royal Hospital and Redditch’s Alexandra Hospital were cancelled after an unexpected surge in A&E admissions.

Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust chief executive Penny Venables said the plans would mean some patients waiting for elective operations such as hip replacements would be carried out faster but that it could result in a drop in income for the trust.

“It won’t cost the NHS anything but it will be money that’s spent on a private provider rather than us,” she said.

“But the most important thing is that these patients get their operations done.”

She said drafting in private hospitals and providers was a good short-term solution but did not resolve the ultimate issue of delays to non-urgent operations.

“We are always going to have to prioritise emergency patients,” she said.

“If we can resolve this by the patients having their operations quicker at a private hospital that’s fine but in the long term we need to sort this out.

“There will always be those patients who are not suitable for operations in a private hospital as well as those who don’t want to use one.”

Prof Keogh told the House of Commons Health Committee NHS officials had met with both private healthcare providers and representatives from the voluntary sector to explore options.

"We've started to look at how the private sector might be engaged in the event of a surge through hospitals coming through A&E,” he said.

"One of the issues under consideration is when the going gets rough in winter, often one of the impacts is on elective care so waiting lists start to drift out, so could elective care be shifted more into the private sector?”

He said the NHS was "better prepared" this winter than it had been in the past, but still faced threats from unexpected outbreaks of flue or norovirus.

Across England between 140 and 350 planned operations have been cancelled every day since Thursday, January 2.