The government has turned to the private sector in a bid to cut NHS waiting lists which are at an all-time high.
The Tories have announced that 13 new community diagnostic centres (CDCs) will open across England to carry out an additional 742,000 scans, checks and tests per year - eight of which will be operated by the private sector.
While more than half of the centres will be privately operated, services will be free to patients – and five will be run by the NHS, the government said.
The private sector expansion in the NHS has been dubbed the largest since Tony Blair was prime minister between 1994 to 2007.
Health secretary Steve Barclay said the government needed to utilise every available resource to ease pressure on the NHS.
He said: “By making use of the available capacity in the independent sector, and enabling patients to access this diagnostic capacity free at the point of need, we can offer patients a wider choice of venues to receive treatment and in doing so diagnose major illnesses quicker and start treatments sooner.”
But Labour argued that the Tories needed to make more use of private capacity they had already, claiming 331,000 patients waiting for NHS care could have been treated since January 2022.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “The Conservatives are failing to make use of private sector capacity and patients are paying the price.
“No-one should be waiting in pain while hospital beds that could be used lie empty.”
Figures released last month revealed NHS waiting lists stood at 7.47 million at the end of May, the highest number since records began in 2007.
The government said private centres would operate similarly to their NHS counterparts, but staff will be employed by private operators, which also own the buildings.
Sites in the South West – located in Redruth, Bristol, Torbay, Yeovil and Weston Super Mare – will be operated by diagnostics company InHealth.
Other private facilities will also be located in Southend, Northampton and south Birmingham and join four already operating in Brighton, north Solihull, Oxford and Salford.
The new NHS-run sites are in Hornchurch, Skegness, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stoke-on-Trent.
Campaigner Dr Julia Grace Patterson criticised the announcement, describing NHS privatisation as harmful.
She tweeted: “The vast majority of healthcare professionals are trained in the NHS.
"There is a *tiny* pool of healthcare professionals solely working in private healthcare. The government are now funnelling yet more public money into private healthcare.
“Guess who’ll be staffing this? Mostly NHS staff, poached from the NHS.The government could just be paying NHS staff properly and resourcing our public service.”
Watch: Govt announces 13 new NHS community diagnostic centres
GP Dr Amir Khan told Good Morning Britain on Friday there was a concern the private clinics would mostly take low-complex, high-volume procedures, leaving the more complex ones for the NHS.
He added this could destabilise the NHS as it would have to burden more costs, potentially costing more for the taxpayer.
It comes after a junior doctor criticised prime minister Rishi Sunak on a call in on radio station LBC after he suggested striking doctors are to blame for record-high NHS waiting lists.
He made the claim despite waiting times having already hit record highs when the wave of strike action began with nurses walking out last December.
The government pledged to open 160 CDCs by 2030. There are currently 114 operating, which have carried out 4.6 million tests, checks and scans since July 2021.