A group of financial investors and healthcare groups are tabling offers to acquire control of NHS Professionals, the staffing agency that supplies 90,000 doctors and nurses to hospitals across the UK.
Sky News has learnt that advisers to the Department of Health (DoH) have asked bidders to lodge proposals to buy a majority stake in NHS Professionals by Friday.
The sell-off marks the latest attempt to part-privatise the staffing agency, following an aborted previous effort, and comes amid fresh warnings from the head of NHS England about cost savings required by the NHS.
Insiders said that parties including Hays (LSE: HAS.L - news) , the recruitment agency, Healthcare Locums and Serco, the outsourcing giant, had all attended recent presentations made to potential bidders.
Financial investors such as Aurelius Equity Opportunities, which has backed British companies such as Allied Healthcare, are also expected to table offers, according to sources in Whitehall.
Bids are expected to value NHS Professionals at somewhere in the region of £50m, less than DoH officials had been anticipating, according to people close to the process.
In a written statement last November, the health minister Philip Dunne said: "The Department of Health has concluded that the company requires significant investment to enable it to expand, so it can deliver improved services to even more NHS trusts and reduce their reliance on expensive agency staff - the bill for which is currently £3bn annually, which diverts resources that could be better used for substantive staffing and improved patient care."
NHS Professionals works with only 55 NHS trusts, or roughly a quarter of the total - a figure that Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, is keen to see increase.
Sources said that a stake of about 70% could be sold to any buyer of NHS Professionals, with the Government retaining a minority stake.
Ministers would have "the right to take back ownership of the company in the event of any serious breach of the agreed main objectives", Mr Dunne said last year.
Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said on Friday that waiting times for some non-emergency operations would rise , and some new drugs would no longer be prescribed on the NHS as part of the "trade-off" required to deal with growing pressure on resources.
The NHS Professionals sale process is being run by Deloitte, the accountancy firm which agreed to a temporary ban on tendering for new Government contracts following a row over a Brexit memo one its employees produced last summer.
In 2010, a consultation on NHS Professionals' future was launched, but did not proceed to a formal sale process.