Private firm starts running NHS Hinchingbrooke Hospital
A private firm has become the first to start running an NHS hospital.
Circle, which is co-owned by doctors, has taken on managing Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Cambridgeshire, which had been threatened with closure as it grappled with £40m of debt.
Circle aims to find a solution to the debt problems of the hospital by attracting new patients.
Union Unison said although the hospital had been saved, it was concerned at involving private firms in the NHS.
The groundbreaking £1bn, 10-year deal will see Circle assume the financial risks of making the hospital more efficient and paying off its £40m of debts.
Circle said it wanted to work with the hospital's staff to improve the safety of its services, and to minimise the number of times patients have to travel to the hospital for different appointments.
Specific timelines are being set for improvements in areas, such as the amount of time nurses spend with patients.
Changes will be led by units - each consisting of a doctor, nurse and administrator.
Circle believes it can make an immediate difference to patients at Hinchingbrooke Hospital. But in the longer term the more profound effect could be felt across the entire health service.
The situation the Cambridgeshire unit found itself in - with high levels of debt - is far from unique. There are another 20 or so NHS trusts in similar situations. In the future, that number could grow even more.
How to keep these hospitals viable is one of the key questions for the NHS in the 21st Century. Many have argued they need to close, but not everyone shares that doomsday view.
Some NHS trusts are looking at mergers with larger hospitals, while others are seeking to develop their portfolio of specialities to attract more patients. But if the involvement of the private sector can make a difference, interest in such arrangements will grow.
The NHS in the East of England said the takeover was saving a small hospital from having to cut services or close altogether.
Circle chief executive Ali Parsa said: "Today an ambitious programme will be unveiled to turn a hospital, once labelled as 'a basket case', into one of the top 10 in the country.
"Like John Lewis, Circle are employee co-owned, and have a track record of creating best-in-class hospitals by devolving power to the clinicians and staff who are closest to patients. We are confident that we can do it again in Hinchingbrooke."
Dr Stephen Dunn, director of policy and strategy at NHS Midlands and East, said: "I think this is a historic day for the NHS."
He said Circle had put forward a "rigorous plan of improvement" to patient care and food quality.
Dr Dunn said this scheme was vital to the survival of Hinchingbrooke.
"Without this process we might have had to close the hospital or cut services," he said.
Phil Gooden, regional organiser for Unison in the East, said that although he welcomed the survival of the hospital he was concerned at private involvement in the NHS.
He said Hinchingbrooke, which had no private beds, may start bringing them in at the expense of NHS beds.
Dr Dunn said there were no plans to start having private beds, although it could not be ruled out.