THE heavily-delayed franchise of the management of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Huntingdon has won an award for health sector ‘deal of the year’ – even though the contract has still not been signed.

Implementation of the franchise has been delayed for so long in Whitehall that the NHS has had to appoint yet another interim chief executive for the hospital, and there are reports that the Government has been implored by Huntingdonshire doctors to sort out the mess.

The franchise contract was originally due to have been signed in February or March, with independent hospital group Circle, a London-based John Lewis-style company, taking over the management last Wednesday.

But the 'final business case' has still not been signed off by ministers at the Department of Health - though The Hunts Post believes it is the Treasury, rather than DoH, that is responsible for the hiatus.

Nonetheless, it was centre-stage at the HealthInvestor awards in London where the project was announced as 'Deal of the Year'.

At the high profile event, attended by 1,100 healthcare professionals from the NHS, independent and voluntary sectors, the 10-strong independent judging panel described the project as "ground-breaking".

The franchise is unique because it will pass full operational responsibility and daily control to the franchisee, for up to 10 years. It is, for the first time, an 'all risks' transfer to the franchisee, according to the East of England Strategic Health Authority, whose strategic projects director Andrew MacPherson accepted the award.

The SHA said Government approval was expected very soon.

Dr Stephen Dunn, the SHA's director of strategy and provider development, also won 'Outstanding Contribution by an Individual', for his work with the Hinchingbrooke franchise and for facilitating a transformation of the East of England's relationship with the NHS and the independent sector.

Meanwhile, Circle would not comment on rumours that its board was considering flotation of shares in the half of the group's equity that is owned by institutions rather than by employees.