PRIVATE firms are being invited to bid for work diagnosing and treating NHS patients in Scotland for the next three years.

Days after health secretary Alex Neil described the use of the independent sector as a "temporary phenomenon", an advert appeared in the British Medical Journal inviting tenders for a "range of inpatient procedures, clinics and outpatient services".

Critics say it is clear from the advert that NHS Scotland cannot cope with patient demand nor meet the Scottish Government's treatment-time targets.

Professor Allyson Pollock, an expert in public health research and policy at the University of London but formerly of Edinburgh University, said: "This will divert resources from existing capacity at a time when budgets are being cut. It is a worrying development and if the tender is a commercial contracting route, it suggests Scotland has not learned the lesson of England's mistakes."

The advert was placed by NHS National Services Scotland (NHS NSS) which performs procurement tasks on behalf of health boards to save money.

It is inviting providers of healthcare to bid for a "framework contract" covering the diagnosis and treatment of adults and children for the NHS. The contract is estimated to be worth a maximum of £20 million a year for three years starting in October and there is an option to extend it by 12 months.

The framework contract will show different health boards what successful bidders are charging for their services, and NHS managers can commission them on this basis without having to restart negotiations. The advert states all surgery must be carried out in the UK and meet Scottish care standards.

A spokesman for NHS NSS said: "We negotiate national frameworks on behalf of NHS boards for a wide range of products and services. By getting providers to state their costs openly, we encourage competition and save individual NHS boards time and money.

"NHS boards have traditionally bought some services from the private sector and this simply makes it more cost-efficient if they choose to do so again. There is no requirement for any NHS board to use the framework unless it wishes to do so."

But Willie Duffy, organiser for health for Unison Scotland, said the union condemned the use of the private sector in this way. He added: "We should be investing in quality NHS services rather than pouring money into private healthcare.

"It is commonsense that money going to pay to have these operations carried out privately would be better spent within the NHS."

Jackie Baillie, health spokeswoman for Scottish Labour, said the advert was "a clear indication the NHS does not have sufficient capacity to cope with demands on its services".

Earlier this month it was revealed health boards had spent more than £40m on private healthcare last year, an increase of nearly 60%. In response, Mr Neil had said spending on the private sector had been used to deal with "short-term" capacity issues.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Funds for the NHS are used to build sustainable capacity. We have set challenging targets for boards to meet the 12-week treatment-time guarantee and we are working to help them build their own local capacity where needed.

"Fewer than 0.5% of patients are being treated in the independent sector, and health boards would only use the framework in exceptional circumstances."