Hinchingbrooke Hospital is to lose the private firm that runs it. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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The NHS privatisation experiment is unravelling before our eyes

As Circle Holdings, the first private firm to manage an NHS hospital, looks to leaving its contract, we have a depressing example of how privatisation can go badly wrong.

What a difference (less than) a year makes. In a press release back in February last year, private healthcare company Circle Holdings spun that it had, “transformed services at Hinchingbrooke”. The hospital, it boasted, “is now secure for the future”.

Which would make the news today that it was walking away two years into a 10-year contract to run Hinchingbrooke – the UK’s only privately-run NHS hospital – a shock, were it not for the sheer, abject predictability of it.

The fact that Circle is dumping the contract on financial grounds, citing a lack of funding and pressure on the casualty department, is certainly no surprise to many, not least the National Health Action Party founding member and Save Lewisham Hospital veteran Dr Louise Irvine.

She says: “This is exactly what we warned and predicted would happen and illustrates the folly of private sector involvement in our NHS. When the going gets tough, the private sector gets going - and dumps NHS patients. The privatisation experiment has lamentably failed”.

It isn’t unexpected, not least because in September last year, when Health Service Journal obtained a damning report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in which a litany of shocking failings were revealed, the writing was on the wall.

It was a miserable list. The CQC found, “little internal or clear external oversight of how the trust managed risks to the quality of care”; a lack of “clarity or coherence” over who was “responsible for the oversight and scrutiny of the trust’s quality agenda”; poor hygiene standards; “poor care provided to patients”, and, perhaps most damning of all, a “blame approach, rather than that of a supportive and patient focused approach”.

Circle had been held up as a shining example of a private company stepping in to triumph where the NHS had failed. It’s impossible to see how this rhetoric can be maintained with any integrity given this monumental failure; the privatisation experiment is unravelling before our eyes.

And what’s striking about this example is that it is not only a failure of patient care standards, but in hard-nosed economics as well. As I pointed out in October, one of the many severe consequences of marketisation – one totally overlooked in Simon Stevens’ big rescue plan – is that when private companies bin their contracts with the NHS in such a self-serving fashion, it is the trusts’ time and precious taxpayer funds that end up being wasted on picking up the pieces.

What cost will Circle’s walking away be to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough? I shudder to think. And, thanks to the Health and Social Care Act, the next chapter in this woeful saga will have to be another gruelling and costly tendering process, administrated by the trust.

And it goes full circle – if you’ll excuse the pun. Why are A&E departments in crisis? It’s extremely complex, but it would help if the limited resources trusts are being asked to survive on weren’t wasted in such gross examples of false economics, and privatisation going so drastically wrong.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.