Bupa, the UK's biggest health insurer, has turned around its underwriting performance to post a £14.6m surplus in 2000, compared to a loss of £39.6m the year before.

The news has led the insurer to pledge average premium increases will be kept to single figures in 2001, rather than the double-digit rises in recent years.

Its total insurance operation, which includes its businesses in Ireland and Spain as well as the UK, returned an underwriting surplus of £42.4m against a loss in the previous year of £16.4m.

Performance in Spain was also strong. Volumes increased by 6%, but recorded profits were flat, reflecting

the strength of sterling against the Euro in 2000.

The number of people insured increased by 130,000 over the year, through a combination of new business, particularly in the corporate sector, and increased renewals among existing members.

Overall, the provident insurer achieved a surplus before tax and other charges of £86.4m for the year ending December 31, 2000, compared to £49.3m the year before.

Group turnover passed £2.1bn and reserves rose by 26% to £919.2m, helped by a revaluation of some hospitals and care homes.

Chairman Sir Bryan Nicholson will retire at the group's AGM in May.

He will be succeeded by Bryan Sanderson who joined the Bupa board on January 1.

He was previously a managing director of BP Amoco and chief executive of BP Chemicals.