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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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