ONE potential chief executive for Hinchingbrooke Hospital has abandoned the selection process because of the Government’s delay in letting the management franchise, The Hunts Post has learned.

The NHS and preferred franchisee Circle - who should have been taking over management of the hospital in two weeks' time - now has just two candidates still in the running of the originally short-listed four.

Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly has urged Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, MP for South Cambridgeshire, to unblock the process, which was supposed to become a template for improving acute hospitals across the health service. But so far to no avail.

"I told Andrew Lansley that I wanted to see a resolution to this, and he acknowledged that. I don't think the delay is a matter of policy for the Health department."

However, Government insiders say the hold-up is not with Health Ministers but in the Treasury - which could have unpicked the process a year ago if it had wanted to.

Ironically, the franchise process is not only something that would naturally appeal to Conservative policy-makers - and has the backing of local Tory MPs - but it is one of the few NHS reforms that seems no longer to be opposed, even by the trade unions involved, probably because the Circle partnership is owned by its employees and Hinchingbrooke workers stand to benefit from the new arrangements.

However, the unexplained delay is causing increasing frustration in Circle's London headquarters because of the huge amount of resources that have already been devoted to preparing for the franchise.

Hinchingbrooke's stand-in chief executive Gerry McSorley leaves this month, and trust chairman Sue Smith is due to go in June, though she may be persuaded to bridge the gap until a successor non-executive chairman is appointed next month.

But, with doctors and nurses champing at the bit for the new freedoms and responsibilities that Circle has promised them, there is serious risk that the managerial eye will come off the ball, with risks to both finances and patients.

One insider told The Hunts Post this week: "Nobody is pushing [for the decision], so the hospital is deteriorating. There needs to be clear leadership, but there isn't."

Circle, which has patiently accepted previous delays, is becoming frustrated, too. Managing partner Ali Parsa said: "There will soon come a time when it becomes more difficult. [The delay] has already interfered with the CEO appointment process, and we've lost one candidate who has gone elsewhere. Both the strategic health authority and Circle are working hand in hand to speed up the process and avoid further damaging delays.

"There are areas of concern that need to be fixed, and all the doctors and nurses are excited about the future. But inaction has its consequences," he warned.