A story has rather drifted under the radar this week, but could yet be a significant milestone in the Government’s reforms of the NHS. According to leaked board papers from the NHS Trust Development Authority, which were obtained and published by the Health Service Journal, both the Department of Health and HM Treasury has approved a process by which the George Eliot Trust in Warwickshire could be the subject of either a merger with another NHS trust or a franchising agreement that would see the running of the hospital outsourced to the private sector.
Changes to the running of the hospital are not in themselves a new story – the hospital has been seeking a “strategic partner” since last December. Yet the step towards a fundamental reworking of the George Eliot’s management and delivery of services, which could involve a private sector partner, was greeted with a surprisingly muted reaction. Granted the story made more than one national newspaper and that Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham claimed the decision represented the selling off of the NHS – but for a country that had seen such vitriol over health policy in recent years (the passage of the Health and Social Care Act and, most recently the legal battle over the future of services at Lewisham Hospital), it felt like a bit of a damp squib.
This in turn begs the question as to whether the country is gradually becoming desensitised to the concept of greater private sector involvement in the NHS, or is prepared to be more open-minded in light of a series of high profile reports into the deficiencies of the health service that have challenged its placement on a reputational pedestal.
But this is not the full story, and while a final decision is still to be taken as to the route the George Eliot will take, the consideration of a franchising arrangement can be viewed as a subtle rubber-stamping of the poster-child of such a contract, Hinchingbrooke Hospital. Under the much publicised contract with Circle for the running of the hospital, Hinchingbrooke has seen improvements in clinical results and levels of patient satisfaction. By approving such a solution for the George Eliot the Department of Health is effectively suggesting that the Hinchingbrooke experiment has worked. The question, therefore, is whether we’ll see the running of more NHS hospitals being outsourced to the private sector.