‘The BMA has long voiced concerns about the Independent Sector Treatment Centre programme,’ a British Medical Association (BMA) spokeswoman told News Line yesterday.

She was responding to the news that NHS London has suspended the contract of private company Clinicenta to provide ‘out-of-hospital’ NHS services across 20 London boroughs, pending the investigation into several serious incidents, including two patient deaths.

The first Clinicenta ‘out-of-hospital service’ began in July 2009.

An NHS London spokesperson confirmed: ‘The out-of-hospital services provided by independent contractor Clinicenta in north London were suspended on 11 November until further notice.

‘Our first priority is patient safety and this decision has been taken as a precautionary measure while NHS London conducts a full investigation into the concerns that have been raised.

‘NHS London is in the process of transferring the care of a small number of patients from Clinicenta to the appropriate NHS provider to ensure that there is minimal interruption in the care they receive.

‘It is our intention to conduct an independent assessment of Clinicenta’s out-of-hospital care. It would be inappropriate for us to comment further until this assessment is complete.’

The BMA spokeswoman continued: ‘While there are always risks involved in surgical care – however straightforward the procedures may seem – it is essential that effective systems are in place to cope when things go wrong.

‘One of the great strengths of NHS hospitals is that they have blood banks and emergency staff who can attend swiftly to prevent complications from progressing to tragedy.

‘The ISTC policy could never succeed without effective integration between independent providers and the NHS.

‘We have also expressed concerns about the limitations on the range and complexity of cases that ISTCs take on, and the power they have been granted to cherry-pick the simplest work.

‘This leaves the NHS to deal with the more complex and expensive cases.’

BMA Council member, consultant surgeon Mrs Anna Athow, speaking in a personal capacity, said: ‘I welcome the suspension of the Clinicenta contract.

‘Independent Sector Treatment Centres (ISTCs) run by private for profit companies, were introduced by the Labour government in 2002.

‘They were brought in to do operations and investigations on NHS patients, on the excuse that the NHS needed extra capacity to do the work.

‘The real purpose of ISTCs was to blaze a trail for a competitive market in NHS clinical care.

‘If the funding that has been directed to ISTCs had been given to NHS hospitals, all these patients could have been cared for in house, in NHS hospitals.

‘These are a much safer environment to have an operation, because there is back up from other surgeons and staff and intensive care and path labs.

‘The £144m contract to the Clinicenta ISTC is part of NHS London’s Lord Darzi plan.

‘NHS London is pushing ahead with closing and running down district general hospitals and replacing them with ISTCs, polyclinics and urgent care centres.

‘Hospitals at risk include, Chase Farm, Homerton, Whipps Cross, Newham, Whittington, St Georges Ilford, to name just those in north east London.

‘The BMA and other health unions should demand the end of Clinicenta’s contract immediately and the return of these patients to NHS hospitals.

‘They should organise a campaign to keep our NHS hospitals intact and keep out the private sector.’