The government’s decision to allow a private company to take over a public hospital for the first time in the history of the NHS has attracted widespread dismay.
In a “groundbreaking” £1 billion 10-year deal with the government, Circle Healthcare – one of Britain’s most prominent health care providers - is to be given the right to provide a full range of hospital services at Hinchingbrooke hospital in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, from 1 February 2012.
Private sector firms already operate in the NHS, such as hip replacement centres, but this marks the first time an entire hospital is controlled by a private business.
Trade unionists, healthcare campaigners, community groups, labour movement activists and the Green Party in England and Wales have condemned the decision.
Adrian Ramsay, deputy leader of the Green Party, declared: “This Government, much like the last, seems determined to privatise more and more of the NHS. Allowing private companies to run hospitals will mean poorer quality care and greater financial strain on the NHS - because the companies will be making a profit as well as running the service out of the same amount of public funding.”
He continued: “The workers and local people at Hinchingbrooke have been campaigning for years to stop this NHS hospital falling into private hands. The Government has failed to help the hospital and the decision today marks a new stage in the privatisation of the NHS. We are gradually losing Britain's best-loved institution."
"The Government may well now try to privatise more hospitals. We need to send the Conservatives and LibDems a clear message: that the people of the UK want to protect the NHS from privatisation, which we know will lead to a lower standard of care and a worse value for money for the taxpayer," said Mr Ramsay.
The move sets an extremely dangerous precedent as it give other cash-strapped hospitals incentive to consider outsourcing their management to private corporations, say critics.
Two other hospitals - the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and the Whiston Hospital (St Helens) – are already considering private sector management options.
Under this new deal, hospitals controlled by the private sector have more interest in profit than in care. Doctors are able to take a slice of the profits, and although the company must maintain employee services, unions fear staff numbers could be cut.
Stuart Jeffery, the Greens' health spokesperson, said: “This will mark the first in a long line of NHS privatisations that we can expect. This government has clearly decided that profit comes before quality. Sadly, it is happy to feather the nests of its corporate friends in the City rather than provide care for patients. Patients will suffer, hard working staff will suffer and the reputation of the NHS will suffer. This milestone puts another nail in the NHS coffin.”
Proponents of the deal argue that privatisation will make the hospital more efficient and help pay off its debts, but many critics argue that there were other options which were not considered.
Circle Healthcare is part-listed on the London Stock Exchange and valued at around £120 million.