THE plans to replace Hinchingbrooke Hospital’s management team with a private company failed to spark a huge public protest at the weekend.

THE plans to replace Hinchingbrooke Hospital's management team with a private company failed to spark a huge public protest at the weekend.

Only 100 campaigners gathered in Huntingdon's Riverside Park at noon, before marching along the ring road, High Street and Grammar School Walk to the Town Park.

The event had been organised by Steve Sweeney, the secretary of the Huntingdon and St Neots Trades Council, to protest against the scheme to franchise the hospital's management team and allow a private company to take control of the NHS hospital.

While there was much support for the protest from trade union members from across the region, there was very little sign that the Huntingdonshire public was prepared to hit the streets to try to block the Department of Health's privatisation plans.

Four years ago more than 1,000 people, including Hinchingbrooke Hospital staff, marched through the streets to protest against the potential downgrading of the Huntingdon hospital and 50,000 signed a petition opposing any cuts.

The NHS has shortlisted three private firms in its tender process. Either Serco, Circle Health or Ramsay Healthcare could be appointed to take over the management of Huntingdonshire's hospital in December, taking the reins from the NHS in April.

NHS East of England, the strategic health authority (SHA) which is running the tender process, has always claimed that no services at Hinchingbrooke are at risk - which could explain the lack of public support for the protest.

Among the handful of Huntingdonshire residents to attend the march were St Ives couple Annie and Philip Sly, who said there are concerned about the plans.

Mrs Sly, 69, told The Hunts Post: "I can't imagine why there aren't more people here today. We want Hinchingbrooke to remain in the NHS, we have paid for it all our lives and deserve to keep it."

Mr Sly, 67, added: "I think the whole thing of having all these meetings and talking to the public has been a farce, at the end of the day. It feels like it is already tied up and that it will go ahead."

Lorna Mansbridge, 43, from Godmanchester, who went with friends and family, complete with their "Hands off Hinchingbrooke" banner, added: "I'm hoping our protest will raise awareness. Not everybody is going to sit back and accept the privatisation."

The strength of feeling among the trade unions was more than evident.

Mr Sweeney introduced a host of speakers, including Martin Booth, chairman of the Cambridgeshire Health branch of Unison, and independent St Ives town councillor Jonathan Salt, who stood in the General Election on an anti-franchise agenda.

As the campaigners prepared to set off, Mr Sweeney told them: "Many of you may have been here before, when Hinchingbrooke was first threatened. We march again now to save the NHS. Make no mistake what this is about. This process sets a dangerous precedent: Hinchingbrooke is a testing ground for further privatisation."

At the rally in the Town Park, speakers pleaded with residents to take up the fight.

Dr John Lister, of Health Emergency, wrote Unison's report into the companies hoping to secure the hospital contract.

He said: "The question is, how are any of these three companies qualified to manage a major hospital like Hinchingbrooke? The answer is, they are not. The last thing we need is the private sector coming in to screw it up."

Mr Booth asked: "Why is this issue so important? Because Hinchingbrooke is a great hospital, with a great reputation. During our campaign people have been coming up to us and saying they should not be messing about with it."

He said while financial management had been a problem in the past (the hospital has a £40million debt), the biggest issue now was a lack of resources and funding.

Cllr Salt said everybody was worried about the threats posed to Hinchingbrooke and asked the SHA to leave the hospital alone and "stop using us as an experiment".