HUNTINGDON’S pioneering Hinchingbrooke Hospital is at risk of losing its new leader – even before he or she is appointed – because of inaction at the Department of Health.

Hinchingbrooke was due to start in June as a 10-year test-bed for franchised management of acute NHS hospitals, following a £1.35million development programme by the east of England Strategic Health Authority to develop a template.

The preferred bidder for the franchise, John Lewis-style partnership Circle, was due to start to revolutionise the way services are delivered – with overwhelming backing from the hospital’s staff – from June 1. The company has been ready to sign the contract for weeks.

But that process has stalled while beleaguered Health Ministers wrestle with concerted opposition to wider plans for NHS reform, already delaying the start of the Hinchingbrooke franchise by a month and now threatening to derail the project.

Four candidates have been shortlisted to become Hinchingbrooke’s new chief executive to replace Gerry McSorley, who leaves next month. All four spent last Wednesday (April 13) at the hospital, and soundings by The Hunts Post suggest that hospital staff were genuinely impressed by three of them.

But all four have other jobs, and none is about to give them up without certainty that the Hinchingbrooke project will go ahead in pretty short order.

The SHA and Circle are being tactfully reticent, but hospital sources are becoming increasingly frustrated that careers, job satisfaction and improvements to patient services are being sacrificed to unrelated political dithering.

They fear that, if no CEO appointment can be made because the contract remains unsigned, the impetus and enthusiasm for change that has been generated by Circle’s preliminary involvement at Hinchingbrooke will be lost in a black hole of inactivity.

Worse, the uncertainty could lead to a fall-off in clinical and financial performance before it eventually gets better, some fear.

The SHA is still bravely hoping that Ministerial approval of the final business case for the franchise will enable the contract with Circle to be signed this week (before Easter), but in the meantime the authority is re-advertising for a new board chairman for the hospital, having failed to appoint one earlier this month.

The ‘residuary board’ will be responsible for monitoring Circle’s performance against the contract.

Circle managing partner Ali Parsa would not criticise Ministers for the delay but is clearly keen to get stuck in.

“Everybody locally has done its work – the SHA, Circle, the hospital, the community. It’s now up to Whitehall,” he told The Hunts Post. “Everyone is excited about the new start.

“The hospital’s period of uncertainty has already been quite long, and we hope it won’t be much longer. The staff are telling us they just want the thing to start now.”

Circle’s plans for Hinchingbrooke’s improvement will rely heavily on clinical and other teams’ identifying what need to be done to improve patients’ experience and putting it in place without waiting for top-level approval.

The Department of Health promised a response “shortly”.