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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.