HEALTH ministers have got themselves into a muddle over the future of Huntingdon’s Hinchingbrooke Hospital, a senior county councillor believes.

The hospital’s management was due to have been franchised in June to John Lewis-style partnership Circle, but the deal – originally scheduled for ministerial signature in February or early March – has still not been done.

Much of the delay was caused by the Treasury’s minute scrutiny of the terms of the deal, but The Hunts Post believes it has been back on Health ministers’ desks for several weeks.

Time is running out to meet the strategic health authority’s re-scheduled assumption that Circle will take over at the turn of the year.

Yesterday (Tuesday) the Department of Health could not say when an announcement would be made about the hospital’s future, but Councillor Geoff Heathcock, who chaired a committee looking into the issue when the hospital’s future was under threat nearly five years ago, with its debt reaching nearly £40m, is demanding answers.

The Liberal Democrat councillor, who was chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council’s adult wellbeing scrutiny committee, said: “Both patients and staff want closure on a difficult past and to move forward in delivering a quality service to the people of Hunts. More delay in making that decision is very unhelpful all round.”

He said ministers seemed to have made life more difficult for themselves by writing down debt at Peterborough City Hospital when they have always insisted that Hinchingbrooke’s debt be repaid.

“They seem to be very reluctant to make a decision to let Circle get stuck in, which leads me to believe that there’s more to this than meets the eye. It could be tied in with what’s gone on with Peterborough City and writing down of some of the debt.

“Ministers are in a bit of a state about how to get out of this hole. The only way Circle – or anyone else – is going to make any progress is to cut the number of things that are being provided, because the money is not there in the county’s health system.

“It’s a typical bureaucratic shambles, and nobody wants to take responsibility. And it’s bizarre because it’s in [Health Secretary and South Cambridge MP Andrew] Lansley’s back yard.

“They have misjudged what’s involved in launching this experiment,” Cllr Heathcock said.

A DH spokesman said yesterday: “The full business case for the proposal is currently with the Government for consideration. This is an important and significant business case in terms of the new model of contract and financial transaction involved. It therefore requires full and considered analysis. However, a decision is expected soon.”