Close to half-a-million people have taken out private health insurance over the past year, The Telegraph can reveal, with the NHS increasingly struggling to provide basic care for patients in the wake of Covid-19.
Bupa, Aviva and Vitality, three of the largest insurers in the UK, have collectively added 480,000 new customers since the beginning of 2022, according to data shared by the companies with The Telegraph.
Long waiting lists and “uncertainty about when procedures will take place would certainly seem to be influencing people’s decision to plan for private care”, said the Private Healthcare Information Network, which tracks the performance of the sector.
NHS pressures a ‘significant driver’
Aviva also said that “concerns regarding the pressures on the NHS post Covid-19 are definitely a significant driver” behind the rise in new customers.
The NHS has faced mounting strain over the past 12 months, with hospitals and health services pushed to the brink by record-breaking waiting lists, staff and bed shortages, and concurrent waves of respiratory infections.
Britain’s underfunded social-care sector is equally struggling to cope with a nationwide surge in demand, making it harder for hospitals to discharge patients into the community to continue their care.
This crisis has come to a head in recent weeks; the Royal College of Emergency Medicine estimates that 300 to 500 people a week are now dying as a result of delays to emergency care.
The latest figures show that almost 2,500 more people died than expected in the week to Dec 23 – the highest number of excess deaths since Feb 2021, which was the deadliest period of the pandemic.
Turning their back on NHS
Against this backdrop, hundreds of thousands of patients have turned their back on the NHS in favour of private healthcare.
Aviva said it covered 100,000 new customers with private medical insurance between Dec 2021 and Dec 2022, taking its national tally to 1.1 million.
“We have noted many individuals considering private health insurance for the first time, including significant interest from younger age groups who traditionally would not have viewed private health insurance as a priority,” a spokesperson for the insurer added.
“We are also seeing improved retention rates as individuals and employers are prioritising keeping their valuable healthcare cover in place.”
Between Dec 2021 and June 2022, Bupa also added 100,000 new customers, taking its total to 2.4 million.
A spokesperson said the “overall trends” seen in the first half of last year “continued throughout 2022”, suggesting the insurer covered a further 100,000 people with private medical insurance over the past six months.
And Vitality told The Telegraph that “over 900,000 people are now covered by Vitality health insurance, which is around a 20 per cent increase over the past year” – equivalent to 180,000.
“We have continued to see strong demand for health insurance,” a spokesperson for the company said.
While some of the new customers will have been granted insurance as part of a benefits package at a new job, many are people who have taken out policies independently.
Not all have welcomed the role of the private sector in caring for patients amid the unfolding NHS crisis.
One chief executive from a major London trust told The Telegraph that “any increase in private activity reduces NHS capacity” as the “vast majority of doctors in private clinics/hospitals also work” in the NHS.
“Similarly nurses,” he said, “although more of them solely work in the private sector.
“In a time of plenty I’m reasonably agnostic but at present very hostile to private health care.”