THE contract for the franchising of the management of Huntingdon’s Hinchingbrooke Hospital has been sitting on Health Ministers’ desks for so long that the start has had to be delayed by a month.

The 10-year franchise was to have started on June 1, following a formal contract-signing by the NHS and franchisee Circle Healthcare in February.

But the franchise has clearly not been a priority for beleaguered Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, MP for neighbouring South Cambridgeshire.

Now, the doomed strategic health authority, NHS East of England, says it is confident that the contract will be signed before Easter, clearing the way for Circle to take over on or shortly after June 30.

The current uncertainty over the future of Mr Lansley's proposed health reforms seems to be part of the stumbling block.

"Some aspects of the new Health Bill are pivotal to the future of Hinchingbrooke," the authority's director of special projects, Andrew MacPherson, told a meeting of the Hinchingbrooke Stakeholder Panel on Monday.

The 'full business case' for the franchise of the £100million-a-year hospital was now with Ministers, meaning final approvals would be around a month later than originally envisaged.

In the meantime, a non-executive 'residuary board', consisting of a chairman and two other directors, would be appointed to monitor operation of the franchise and "protect the family silver" in Mr MacPherson's words.

He said the franchising process, which could become a template for other acute hospitals, had cost the NHS £1.35m over two years - a saving of around £750,000 on the original budget estimate.

In this case Circle has shown itself to be the best way forward for Hinchingbrooke, combining "the best of the NHS with best practice in the private sector that seems to give us the best chance".

John Lewis-style partnership Circle has short-listed four candidates for the post of chief executive for the franchised hospital, said Ali Parsa, Circle's founder and managing partner. They will be at the hospital next Tuesday and Wednesday to meet as many stakeholders as possible before one is selected to run the operation.

He would be inviting the trade unions "to join hands with us to make Hinchingbrooke the best district hospital in the country".

He promised that Circle would not start to pay down the hospital's historic debt of nearly £40m until Hinchingbrooke was operating in surplus.

"We have never taken a surplus out of the system. We have always invested it back, so no money leaves the NHS."

He explained Circle's business position thus: "We are as much private sector as GPs. The difference is that with us everybody benefits not just those at the top. We will never allow anything to be done at the cost of people who are working for us," he assured hospital employees.

Pressed on what Circle had that the current management lacked, Mr Parsa responded: "There's scope to allow flexibility for more innovative opportunities. It's a new vehicle operating in a brand new environment."

Far from there being a risk of shutting departments, Circle's expectation was that Hinchingbrooke would be expanding - "It doesn't really cost more, and staff are happiest when they are doing a great job," Mr Parsa said. "There will be pressures, but our starting point is that local people want their services."

At the end of what is likely to have been his last as chairman of the panel, district council chief executive David Monks, who leaves the authority in the summer, concluded: "There's a very strong and clear role for this hospital. I see very positive news on the horizon and a very positive future for the hospital."