Circle takes a step into the unknown in new hospital deal

The news that Circle, a partially listed company, has been invited to sort out the financial mess at Hinchingbrooke NHS hospital will doubtless please the remaining Thatcherites among us. The first full takeover of a hospital in such circumstances, my heart plummeted when I read the news, until I saw this leading quote from Circle boss Ali Parsal:

“We want to create a John Lewis-style model with everyone who works there in charge of the hospital, letting them own the problems and solve them. We will try everything we can to make this small hospital viable – if we can, how fantastic would that be?”

Ali is obviously a Slog reader, but the question remains, can a company with plc status and greedy shareholders deliver on the mutual promise? I have an open mind about that if the Hinchingbrooke deal is ring-fenced in a mutual division of Circle. I don’t know enough about the deal as yet to comment. But it is half a chance for the mutualised approach.

Predictably, Union leaders ‘fear that there will be job cuts’. You bet there will. I’ve spent enough time researching, interviewing and visiting the hospital sector over the last few years to know that the ancillary staffing assumptions are a complete fiction: you could strip 25-30% of the workforce out of most NHS hospitals and not notice a thing beyond the sense of extra space. Lansley’s initial solution to the problem seemed to be to starve hospitals of NHS funds, and keep giving more to GPs. When the Health Minister sees the hospital infrastructure as a haemorrhoid, you know you have a problem at the top…..and so it proved. Mr Lansley – who has always seen GPs as jolly entrepreneurial budding Alan Sugars – seems to have come up short against their naturally protectionist nature when it comes to competition: the Minister has ‘scaled back’ plans to give patients greater freedom when choosing their GP practice. And he’s agreed a new pay deal for GPs. You can always rely on doctors to get their priorities right these days.

Public sector union Unison’s head of health, Christina McAnea, said, “We just don’t accept there is no expertise within an organisation the size of the NHS, and to turn to the private sector which has a very patchy record in delivering these kind of services is an accident waiting to happen.” Constructive as ever, but the sad news is that this hospital (described by the Trust in its full-colour brochure bollocks as ‘ a forward-looking, friendly, efficient, safe and clean hospital, providing quality health care for the people of Huntingdonshire) has a £40M debt. Talented people don’t let things get to that stage.

On a broader canvas, a cross-party group of MPs has serious doubts about the effectiveness of Lansley’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, whereby fast food firms, drinks makers and supermarket chains help shape the coalition’s approach to public health, and thus avoid being subjected to further legislation, in return for what critics say are inadequate changes, such as cutting salt in food. I love this so-called ‘nudging’ policy: not only has getting manufacturers to face their social responsibilities never worked without compulsion, the campaign consists of getting unwilling turkeys to vote for Christmas…..based on health findings which may well be a load of tosh anyway. Nothing like taking the treacle road to nowhere, that’s what I say.

Earlier in the case of NHS v Lansley