OPPOSITION councillors have criticised plans to treat children as “guinea pigs” by awarding a £250 million family support service contract to Virgin Care.

Essex County Council awarded the seven-year contract to Virgin Care, in partnership with Barnardo’s, to run family services across the county.

The contract, which starts in April, includes health, wellbeing and family support services from pre-birth to the age of 19 and will see the combination of existing services like the healthy child programme, healthy schools, family nurse partnership and children’s centres from April 2017.

Harwich county councillor Ivan Henderson, Labour group leader, raised concerns at a scrutiny committee meeting that Virgin had not run children’s service on such a large scale before.

“Our existing providers have the local knowledge and experience to provide the services that are desperately needed,” he said.

“North Essex is facing a 33 per cent reduction in the children’s health budget, which affects Jaywick, Harwich and Colchester.

“There’s been no impact assessment on what this contract will have on the service.”

He added: “We have genuine concerns as to whether Virgin can run these services as a successfully as the current not-for-profit specialist providers.

“We are handing this service to a profit-making company that does not have the same knowledge of local need.”

Labour councillor Mike Danvers added that Essex County Council was being used as a “guinea pig” by Virgin Care.

Tim Roberts, regional organiser for Unison, added: “These services are all currently delivered by NHS trusts and non-profit-making social enterprises, all of whom have invested heavily in the services in recent years.”

“They have a track record of delivering quality patient care.

“The decision to award these services to a provider that has never had experience of running services of this scale is a serious gamble.”

An Essex County Council spokesman said the council, in partnership with West Essex Clinical Commissioning Group, followed a “robust procurement process” before awarding the contract to Virgin Care.

He added: “Feedback for Virgin Care’s response to the track record question stated that they demonstrated extensive track record of delivering a range of contracts across the young people’s agenda, early intervention, targeted, statutory and health-related.

“They evidenced the bringing of services together to engage with hard to reach family providing evidenced based targeted support and sharing of facilities.

“Virgin Care will be working in partnership with Barnardo’s, an existing Essex children’s centre provider, and have also committed to working with local voluntary providers so we are confident that the local knowledge will not be lost.”

A spokesman for Virgin Care added: “We are really pleased to have been selected to deliver more joined-up care for young people and their families across Essex.

“We look forward to working with our great partners, including Barnardo’s, and alongside the many outstanding local professionals to deliver a high quality service that has been shaped by the people who use it.”