Britain’s biggest insurers have seen a surge in customers getting private health cover as NHS waiting lists hit record highs amid unprecedented strike action and lasting knock-on effects from lockdown policies.
NHS struggles are presenting business opportunities for major insurance companies who seek to capitalise on waiting lists, delays, and strikes, which has seen Aviva and Bupa collectively adding hundreds of thousands of new customers to their bottom line.
An Aviva spokesperson told The Epoch Times by email that in the last few years, it has “seen a consistent increase in new business sales for private medical insurance both by individuals and small businesses in the UK, as well as growing demand from corporate clients.”
The spokesperson said that whilst “we would not attribute this to any single factor, intermediaries tell us that concerns regarding the pressures on the NHS post-COVID-19 are definitely a significant driver.”
“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,” she added.
In its 2023 half-year report, Bupa said that revenue increased as it grew by over 250,000 customers, taking its total membership to 3.3 million, compared to 2020 when it had 1.3 million memberships, according to Statista and Kantar Media.
In August, the head of one of Europe’s biggest insurers, France’s Axa, told the FT there are “quite a few business opportunities” for AXA to expand its private healthcare business in the UK due to NHS stresses.
Chris Steele, founder and editor of myTribe Insurance, a private health insurance and healthcare consumer information website, told The Epoch Times that the NHS is the “closest thing we’ve got to a national religion” and people feel very loyal towards it.
“But at the same time, if you look at the current backlog, 7.6 million people are waiting for treatment in England,” he said.
“I think although there is this overall national pride and strength of feeling towards the NHS, there’s a very high probability that you know somebody that’s currently in the NHS system and the probability is that they’re having some problems,” Mr. Steele said.
“I would love the NHS to be working really well as well. I think that’d be great for the UK but the sad truth is that it’s not, there are many people that are having to wait for extended periods of time for treatment,” he added.
He said that a big number like 7.6 million may not really resonate with people, whereas what’s more probable is that people hear from friends and family members who have had extended waits or bad experiences, and then that prompts them to start looking at health insurance for the first time.
In June, his company surveyed 2,344 UK adults in conjunction with YouGov to get their current thoughts about the NHS in the UK.
The survey found that only 7 percent of Britons think the NHS is “Fine as it is,” with 84 percent saying change is needed and four in five admitting they are worried about the state of healthcare in the UK.
He said, however, that private health insurance isn’t a “silver bullet” because if you’ve got a pre-existing condition, then those conditions won’t be covered.
“The unfortunate thing is we often get people coming to us asking for a quote and they’re they’re on a waiting list. And it’s too late, health insurance can’t help these people,” Mr. Steele said.
“So for many people, it’s wait on the NHS or find the money to fund the treatment themselves,” he said.
He added that they frequently hear from people who are on a waiting list for a hip replacement for example and they look for health insurance to try and speed things up.
But in such a case, the only realistic option is for them to try to find the money to pay for the treatment themselves, which can mean using savings, getting a loan or pulling money together from family. A hip replacement done privately can cost somewhere in the region of £14,000, while cancer treatment can reach hundreds of thousands of pounds.
In a 2022 report from leading property agent Savills which explored “significant opportunities for investors and operators in the UK Private Independent Hospital sector,” picked up that Spire Healthcare, the largest independent provider in the UK, has seen the proportion of its patients using self-pay almost double, increasing from 15 percent in 2020 to 27 percent in 2021, with the current NHS backlog and long waiting times appear driving even quicker growth.
Mr. Steele also added that while this year in particular, there’s been a surge of people taking out health insurance for the first time, employers are too.
This is because the UK job market is very competitive coupled with the fact that huge numbers of people are on long-term sick leave. According to ONS statistics, the number of people economically inactive because of long-term sickness has risen to over 2.5 million people, an increase of over 400,000 since the start of COVID-19.
“Employers are increasingly taking out health insurance to protect their staff but also to protect their business. You don’t want your team off for extended periods of time because they’re waiting for NHS treatments,” he added.
A record 7.6 million people in England at the end of June were waiting for routine NHS treatment according to the latest figures released in mid-August by NHS England, with two in five patients waiting more than 18 weeks to be seen. This was up from 7.5 million in May.
Figures obtained through freedom of information requests from the Labour Party on Thursday found that an estimated 121,000 patients died while waiting for NHS treatment in England last year.
The Conservative government has blamed the backlog on strikes over pay and work conditions which has seen under one million operations and appointments canceled in nine months of industrial action.
The situation doesn’t look like it will let up anytime soon. On Friday junior and senior doctors said that will hold a joint strike for the first time in the history of the health service in what has been described as a “serious escalation” in their row over pay.
The co-ordinated industrial action is set to take place in September and October.
In September in Spiked, Professor Karol Sikora, an oncologist and leading world authority on cancer, reiterated his warning that lockdown created a “cancer bomb.”
On average, around a thousand people every day in Britain are told they have cancer for the first time.
He told The Epoch Times in 2021 that lockdown’s lack of face-to-face appointments, campaigns urging people to stay at home and not go to the NHS, contributed to major delays in cancer diagnosis, which means those getting diagnosed now have more advanced stages of cancer.
“You only had to look at the vast, empty hospital car parks throughout lockdown to realise that doctors simply weren’t seeing people who needed help,” Professor Sikora told Spiked.
On the NHS backlog, he said that “we won’t see the true consequences on cancer survival for another two or three years.”
‘People Turning To Private Health Insurance Year On Year’
People’s attitudes to private health insurance are changing with an increasing number of patients turning to the private sector for elective procedures.
According to research done by the Association of British Insurers (ABI), people value the NHS, but 82 percent of respondents are concerned about whether it is coping with increasing demands. It said that waiting times are a primary concern and 58 percent of respondents think that workforce shortages are the main cause of delays compared with 42 percent that think the main cause is the knock-on effects of the pandemic.
When ABI asked about insurance, it found 50 percent or more of respondents said that those who can afford to take out health and protection products “should be encouraged to do so.”
An ABI spokesperson told The Epoch Times by email that “the independent healthcare sector has worked side by side with the NHS for decades, and has a role to play in complementing its vital work.”
She said that since 2018, it has seen more people turning to private health insurance year on year and in 2021 almost 5.5 million people were covered by individual and group policies, the highest number since 2009.
“The services insurers offer, from early intervention to digital GPs, mean they’re well placed to help share the load and free up the NHS’s capacity to focus on other essential services and treatment,” ABI said.