UNIONS have welcomed a judge's decision to block a controversial health care contract switch to the private sector

Virgin Care won the £104million contract to run the county's 0-19 Healthy Child Programme from Lancashire County Council, which includes school nurses and health visitors for children and young people, beating Lancashire Care NHS Foundation in the process.

The switch was due to take place on April 1, but Justice Peter Fraser blocked to move in the High Court after a legal challenge by by the current providers of the service, Lancashire Care and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

As a result of their challenge an automatic suspension was placed on the transfer of services, pending a hearing scheduled for April.

Lancashire County Council put forward an application to lift the suspension to allow the service to be transferred on April 1, claiming there would be a gap where no one would be providing the service which they are statutorily obligated to provide.

However, this was rejected by Justice Peter Fraser in January, after it was revealed that the council are able to extend the contract by a maximum of two periods of two years.

A more detailed summary of Justice Fraser's reasons and the legal arguments put forward by both parties was published last week, in which he described the council's evidence as 'muddled'.

The judgement also revealed that the gap between Virgin’s bid and the NHS bid was only 0.07 per cent and identified the detrimental impact that losing the council contract would have on the NHS trusts’ ability to provide other services.

He said: "It would be odd to say the least, that if the Council were in breach of its legal obligations in awarding the existing contracts to the Trusts, it could rely upon its own breach in this respect and be in a stronger position concerning its application than if it had not been in breach of the Regulations in the first place.

"I consider the evidence from the Council on this point to be a little muddled."

He went on to suggest the NHS trusts would face 'inevitable reorganisation' of its business as a result of the transfer which often 'involve redundancies'.

He also identified the detrimental impact that losing the Council contract would have on the NHS trusts' ability to provide other services.

He said: "The impact upon the provision of healthcare as a whole to those in the catchment areas of the two Trusts is said to be considerable and I accept that.

"Any incumbent provider of any service who is then unsuccessful in a procurement competition for those services will face inevitable reorganisation of its business as a result of that lack of success.

Such reorganisation will, very often but not invariably, involve redundancies.

"In addition to the cost and disruption that will cause, which I find would be considerable, the loss of the Contract will make it more difficult for the Trusts to deliver other similar public services which they are contracted to deliver, and these will require new pathways to care to be developed

A spokesman UNISON said :"UNISON is surprised that Lancashire County Council sought to challenge the automatic suspension on the award of the contract to Virgin.

"Clearly Lancashire Care and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trusts have genuine concerns about the procurement process and it is common sense to allow the existing NHS providers to continue to provide these essential services to the children of Lancashire pending the full trial which will rule on the matter."

"Given the judge's comments that some of their evidence was "a little muddled" I think Lancashire County Council should explain why they sought to get this privatisation through in advance of the full trial."

Shaun Turner, Lancashire County Council's cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: "We have just completed the procurement of a range of new public health services for children aged 0 to 19.

"This is the first time the county council has carried out this process for 0 to 19 services, which mainly includes providing health visitors and school nurses, since taking over public health responsibilities. This has enabled us to ensure that we will have a consistent range of services across the whole county, available to all, with additional support for those who most need it.

"A winning bidder was chosen using a fair, open and transparent procurement process, inviting bids from suitably experienced organisations.

"Providing a good service for our children and young people will always be our priority and the successful provider scored more highly in a rigorous process, weighted in favour of the quality of service provided.

"However, as a result of an ongoing legal challenge to the process, no contract has yet been awarded."