Cable questions Hunt over risk to NHS from privatised plasma firm
Lib Dem minister risks further Tory ire by raising fears for patient safety after sale to US company.
The business secretary, Vince Cable, has asked his cabinet colleague Jeremy Hunt, at the Department of Health, for assurances that the recent privatisation of the state-owned blood plasma company will not leave the NHS short of life-saving products.
In a private letter Cable sought “personal reassurances” from Hunt, the health secretary, about possible contamination risks to the UK plasma supply following the sale in June of the state-owned company to the American private equity firm Bain Capital.
It is only the latest intervention by Cable that could raise the ire of his Conservative coalition partners: the business secretary recently said that the Tories were “in a panic” over immigration, using populist rhetoric reminiscent of Enoch Powell. He has also annoyed the London mayor, Boris Johnson, with comments about the capital “draining the life out of the rest of the country”.
In a carefully worded letter to Hunt, Cable does not criticise the sale of the blood plasma company, but asks how the government will use its minority stake to ensure patient safety.
The government sold an 80% stake in Plasma Resources UK to Bain for £200m, a decision described by one former Labour health minister as “the worst possible outcome” and by another as “too risky”.
At its Hertfordshire laboratory the company turns plasma, the fluid in blood that carries white and red cells, into lifesaving treatments for immune deficiencies, neurological diseases and haemophilia.
Since 2002, all plasma has been collected from US donors because of the theoretical risk of contamination with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of BSE, which cannot be reliably tested for.
Cable chose to weigh in after hearing “very worrying” concerns raised by his constituent Walter Holland, emeritus professor of public health at the London School of Economics, and by Lucy Reynolds, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Cable wrote to Hunt saying: “Professor Holland and Dr Reynolds put to me the view that, with the involvement of a profit making company, there will now be increased risk of contamination. They fear this is a scandal waiting to happen and that it is NHS patients who will suffer in this worst of all possible outcomes.
“Obviously this is now after the event but I would nonetheless appreciate some personal reassurances from you on the security of the UK plasma supply following this sale … Can you let me have some detail on how the UK will be using its influence on Bain Capital to ensure there can never be any risk to this country, and that there is absolutely no possibility that the worst fears that have been put to me could be realised? What are the intentions for the UK’s remaining 20% stake in the company?”
A spokeswoman at the Department of Health said Hunt had written to Cable this month assuring him that Bain could not materially change the nature of the business. The spokeswoman said: “This sale is good news for patient safety, taxpayers and jobs. It will ensure we continue to have a secure, safe supply of blood plasma products for years to come and that has always been our priority.”
She added that the company’s plant in Elstree was outdated and needed investment. “Bain Capital has committed to invest £50m in it. Without this level of investment, [the laboratory] would have struggled to compete on the internationally competitive market and it could have faced closure.”
Holland could not reached for comment, but Reynolds accused the government of failing to assess the consequences for patient safety, arguing that not enough safeguards had been put in place to ensure uncontaminated supplies. “The [government’s] impact report talks about business risks but not the health risks,” she warned.
A redacted version of the government’s options paper on PRUK, seen by the Guardian, concluded there was neither a strategic nor economic reason for government ownership.
“The business is of insufficient size, with a very narrow and dated product range, to ever successfully compete on an international or national basis … sale is the best way of securing successful investment, ” the paper states.
Bain Capital and PRUK declined to comment, but the company previously said it would “work closely with the NHS to ensure continuity of supply” and honour all its contractual obligations.