One of the UK’s biggest private healthcare companies has been fined £1.2 million for a price-fixing scheme concocted over a dinner laid on by one of its hospitals three years ago.

The Competition and Markets Authority said Spire Healthcare has agreed to pay the penalty for the scandal, which is thought to have lasted nearly two years.

At a dinner laid on by managers at Spire’s Regency Hospital in Macclesfield for local ophthalmologists, five local suppliers talked about the fees they charge patients for an initial consultation.

After the meeting an employee of Spire emailed the five, and two other local businesses, to suggest they all agree to charge £200 for the consultations.

As a result, four ophthalmologists put their prices up by £20, while three kept them the same.

Michael Grenfell, the CMA’s executive director of enforcement, said: “Initial consultations are an essential first step for people suffering from eye disorders. It is unacceptable that patients were unable to shop around and get the best deal because Spire and the consultants illegally set a minimum consultation fee”

The arrangement is thought to have been in place for almost two years, until July 2019, the CMA said.

Spire estimated that around 150 patients had “relevant consultation appointments” over the period.

The company said: “Spire Healthcare apologises for its conduct and fully co-operated with the CMA in its investigation, agreeing to accept the CMA’s findings in full and settle the case with a fine of £1.2 million.”

It added that the quality of care for its patients had not been affected by the price fixing, and promised a new pricing system to avoid a repeat of the issue.

The ophthalmologists were each fined between £642 and £3,859.

It is not the first time that the competition watchdog has cracked down on eye doctors.

Five years ago the Consultant Eye Surgeons Partnership, a membership organisation, was fined £382,500 after colluding on prices.

Mr Grenfell said: “It is particularly disappointing that the CMA has had to take action in the private ophthalmology sector again, following a previous finding of anti-competitive practices in the sector in 2015.

“Today’s decision, and the subsequent fines, send a clear signal that we will not tolerate anti-competitive behaviour.”