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Branson Pickle

Posted by Dr No on 11 April 2012

nhs_for_dummies.jpgWord is in the air that The Beard is out to spike Max Pemberton. The redoubtable and excellent Max, whose weekly column in the Telegraph has repeatedly shone penetrating light on the sinister implications of the Tory NHS reforms – and here it is good to praise the Telegraph for printing copy critical of Tory policy – has, by way of his latest column, lit a burner under The Beard, and the balloon has gone up. Word further has it that the balloon is to be navigated to a position directly over Pembers, from which position it will descend hard on him, like a ton of bricks, or more precisely, £90,000 or more of legal costs. The threat follows an earlier failed attempt to drop a injunction banning publication on the Telegraph. You can – for now at least – read the article that provoked such corporate ire here, and judge for yourself who is speaking the truth, and who is full of hot air.

This type of heavy handed legalistic activity is entirely to be expected, now that NHS services are to be provided not by the amiable bumbling well-intentioned monolith of a colossal public service, but by cut throat commercial concerns. Branson may have a bigger beard that the other well known condiment entrepreneur, but it now seems that the fluffier the beard, the sharper the tooth of the shark inside.

Branson’s ludicrous and bombastic assault will fail, because we will not allow it to succeed. Indeed, the casual observer might observe that not only is the attack the product of over-inflated over-heated corporate imagination, but something perhaps even foolish, more likely than not to backfire, and one supposes that backfiring is to be avoided at all costs in those who travel by hot air balloon.

Be that as it may, Branson’s wont be the only corporate balloon to go up; and so, for the benefit of those who have approached the NHS Reforms as an ostrich approaches sand, Dr No presents his inside back cover guide to what is happening from The NHS Reforms for Dummies:


NHS work can now be done by any willing/qualified provider. In practice this means any willing cowboy, given that the already grievously overwhelmed Care Quality Commission can't quite cope - and matters are set to get a whole lot worse as the cowboys ride out to play.


Some of the cowboys will be good at their job; others will not. Some will be genuinely well intentioned and not-for-profit, others will use the nice-little-earner charity wheeze, but by far the largest number will be for-profit commercial concerns. Some of these for-profit concerns will be readily identifiable sharks; others will do their best to hide the sharks behind JLP style wheezes and similar fronts; but in all cases the brain and muscle will be that of the shark.


Like the obligate ram ventilating shark that must forever swim lest it drown, the for-profit concern must forever chase profit; otherwise it too will drown. That is simply how it works, for sharks, on The Apprentice, and in business. If you don’t pursue oxygen – if you are a shark – or profit, the oxygen of business – if you are a business - you simply drown.


Some of these for-profit concerns will manage the inevitable conflict between providing good care and making a profit better than others. But in all cases, these for-profit concerns, whatever their guise, will, in contrast to doctors, make the care of their profit their first concern. They cannot but do so, because that is what they exist to do.


The greediest sharks with the sharpest teeth will sooner or later, having mismanaged the conflict and got their priorities confused, start to make mistakes. There have already been too many examples where this has happened: Winterbourne View and Southern Cross spring to mind. There will be many many more yet to come.

Branson’s heavy handed attack on Pemberton bears the tooth marks of a greedy shark with sharp teeth. It is not only quite unnecessary; it is reckless and foolish. It seems to Dr No that The Beard has landed himself – dear, oh dear! - in Branson Pickle.


Dear Dr No

I was under the impression that advances in medical science needed to be based on strong and irrefutable evidence. Strangely you do not cite any evidence for Branson's alleged thereat to sue, merely "word is in the air".

Is there any proof of this other than your strong will that it be true????

Without wishing to sound cryptic, the original source of the information received about Virgin and the Telegraph/Max Pemberton by Dr No is in his view sound, but he has not seen direct original evidence - and that is why this post is worded as it is. He could have opened the post with 'According to a [reliable] source...'. Perhaps the should have done; but 'Word is in the air' is more Dr No's way of wording things.

It must be obvious to any smart guy that to take legal action in the age of bloggers and twitters would be futile. It would have been great to raise the public's awareness of the end of their NHS. Was it ours too?

Thanks Dr No for the reply - presumably you will now have seen the tweet from @MaxPemberton which says "There's also been a lot of rumours. To clarify, i'm not being sued by Virgin and no current threat of this or injunction."

This post, unusually for Dr No, covers two distinct but related points. The first is why would any decent self respecting business - assuming the source was correct, and Dr No has already made clear, he considers the source reliable - act so crassly? It was bound to backfire. That is why - it seems to Dr No - The Beard is now back-pedalling faster than a circus mono-cyclist.

The second is the more general but related one: this is just the sort of soul-destroying brutal legalistic bullying activity we are going to see so much more of once Hacksaw's willing cowboys come out to play. The reasoning for this assertion is in the post. It is not a society Dr No wants to be part of.

My dad used to say never trust a man with a beard, because he has something to hide..

Dr No hasn't seen MP's tweet (he prefers to follow his supper rather than twitter). But he did read your record of the tweet, and it seems to Dr No to have - just possibly - some ambiguity.

This is more telling: Max Pemberton

I'm off twitter for next few days so apologies for not being able to reply to your messages personally. x

Taken in the round, and considering all the information available to him, it seems to Dr No the most likely sequence of events is this:

MP writes his article, and while doing he had contact with Virgin (in the article, he says 'a Virgin Care spokesman confirmed to me'). Virgin concluded from the contact that a not entirely glowing with praise article was in the pipeline, and some hot-shot corporate lawyer type quite out of touch with the real world said let's bang an injunction on him/the Telegraph, and/or threaten to sue for good measure. Being a BH weekend, this proved easier said than done, and the injunction either didn't get started, or failed; in any event the article appeared.

Meanwhile, RB (or perhaps an aide) realised they were in a pickle of their own making, and that there was a real chance of the brown pickle turning into darkest poo, and so they backed off. So it is entirely possible there is no current actual or threatened legal action. Whether there was, on the information currently available in the public domain, we can only surmise. Dr No suspects, on the balance of probabilities, there was a threat, but it was (wisely) withdrawn.

What is certain - and this is the point being made in the second part of the post - is that the general probability of this sort of crass heavy-handed legal bullying happening will rise directly in proportion to the number of out of touch heavy handed corporate bullies operating in health care provision. If it happened to MP, it was unacceptable; just as it will be equally unacceptable when it happens to someone else.

Julie - since retiring from SPECTRE, DN has grown a beard. It may or may be fluffier than RB's - so he may or may not have more or less to hide(!).

Any action by RB or HB will draw more attention. We will all realise till it is too late.

MP and RB aside I would refer to your fourth point:

“Some of these for-profit concerns will manage the inevitable conflict between providing good care and making a profit better than others. But in all cases, these for-profit concerns, whatever their guise, will, in contrast to doctors, make the care of their profit their first concern. They cannot but do so, because that is what they exist to do.”

Contrast this claim by Bupa’s “Clare Hollingsworth, managing director of Bupa Hospitals Ltd, said: "We are delighted to have the opportunity to work in partnership with the NHS in the North West to provide the best possible services for patients. As part of our commitment to patients and GPs we have put easy-to-read outcomes data about clinical and service quality for all Bupa Hospitals online, including Bupa Hospitals Manchester, Murrayfield and North Cheshire. We are the first independent sector provider to do so."” on ‘winning’ a NHS contract with life for the old folk at a Bupa care home where it is obvious by their ‘naming and shaming’ of managers who dare to hire agency staff to cover staff absence that profit is their only motive.

This is the shape of things to come.

Anna :o]

Max Pemberton tell us that "Virgin Care has won a £500 million contract to provide community services across Surrey and began running these services, as well as the county’s prison healthcare, on April 1".

Will Beardy do better with our precious health services than he has done with his wretched trains?Apparently "VIRGIN trains receives twice as many complaints per passenger as any other rail operator in Britain.The staggering statistic means Sir Richard Branson’s company gets more complaints than the combined total of 14 of the country’s 19 rail firms.One passenger out of every 182 travelling by Virgin is left angry and exasperated at the end of their journey.The operator of the west coast line between London and Glasgow gets 548 complaints per 100,000 passengers. It is a record number and the highest ever received by the Office of Rail Regulation since its formation in 2004.Virgin was also Britain’s worst railway operator when it came to responding to complaints. It failed to answer 36 per cent within 20 days – the maximum time allowed under customer service guidelines".

We've already seen this sort of thing happening in relation to welfare reforms. There have been a lot of concerns relating to Atos, the private firm that carries out assessment for sickness and disability benefits. With ordinary people on the internet saying there was something seriously wrong with assessments resulting in a success rate at appeal of around 40% (70% if you've got a lawyer to represent you), Atos started to get heavy and got a number of websites closed down. Other disability websites are very wary as to what they publish.

As to contracts - it's not just about what's hidden by commercial confidentiality, it's the practical issues to do with human rights and treaty obligations. If it's not the government providing the service, the individual has fewer comebacks.

The tipping point of the M.P article was probably the introduction of Beardy`s daughter which prompted such an untypically foolish response in the pr savvy Branson. It always amazes me how Beardy manages to project himself as a well meaning altruistic benefactor instead of the manipulative shark that he is. Remember the price fixing of passenger subsidies between Virgin and B.A, who got the €300 million fine, B.A of course, because Virgin became the `whistleblower` but look how Beardy bleated recently over the BMI takeover by B.A, Beardy only likes to dish it out. Great article, more please.