This can’t be not happening – horror as Hinchingbrooke fiasco fails to unfold
Gnashing of teeth greeted the news of modest progress at the NHS’s first privately run hospital.
The management of Hinchingbrooke got a good half-term report after its first six months in charge.
Under NHS control the hospital had run up debts of £40m and had been condemned by the government as a clinical and financial basket case. It is now run by Circle, a private company.
Opponents of the scheme are cross that Circle has managed to improve services and started to turn its finances around. What should have been a sizzling clinical farce in a rich fiasco sauce is showing disturbing signs of being not very tasty at all.
Where are the dead patients, the terrifying increases in hospital-acquired infections, the vicious cuts in services, the unravelling finances, the disappointed shareholders?
The Unison representative on Radio 4’s Today programme said that staff are worried about cuts, safe in the knowledge that staff everywhere are worried about cuts. Searching for a patch of authentic gloom, the best she could manage was to accuse Circle of cutting cleaning contracts.
That could only mean three things: infection, death, headlines. The interviewer dug deeper, but there was nowhere to dig. Hinchingbrooke has cut cleaning services for residential areas of the hospital - doctors' and nurses' quarters - but increased cleaning in clinical areas, according to Ali Parsa, Circle's chief executive.
Worse still, patients are very happy with the service they receive – have they no shame?
The union rep could only grind her teeth as she struggled to congratulate the hospital without implicating the management in its success. It was early days. Still plenty of time for Circle to screw up, she implied.
Plenty of people hope she’s right. Many regard Hinchingbrooke as an aberration, the beginning of the end.
The truth is less exciting. The NHS has never been entirely run by the state. General practice has been a private franchise since 1948. Maybe it’s time for hospitals to catch up.
The BBC interviewer expressed incredulity at Circle’s claim to have identified £1.6m in savings on stationery, slightly more than the saving made by reducing stays for hip and knee operations. Never mind the clinical improvements, why was the previous management incapable of working out that the hospital was spending too much on envelopes?
Read the small print of the Circle deal at Hinchingbrooke and you’ll see that it’s hardly a cherry picker’s charter. This was not a fabulously successful hospital at the top of its game just waiting to be stripped of its assets, but a failing institution begging to be shut down. If Circle makes a small profit it will be able to keep the hospital going. If it makes a bigger profit it will be obliged to pay off the inherited debt. Patients won’t care about any of this as long as they keep getting a decent service.
If Circle succeeds in turning Hinchingbrooke round it will have earned its money. If it fails, there will be plenty of losers ready to cheer from the sidelines, but no winners.
Listen to the interview with Karen Jennings of Unison (1:12.09), analysis by the BBC’s Mark Easton (2:10.37) and the interview with Ali Parsa (2:13.40). Select the relevant segments using the slider in the iPlayer pop-out box (timings are shown in brackets). It's all here.