HEALTH Secretary Andrew Lansley has refused to talk to The Hunts Post about the future of Hinchingbrooke Hospital before a decision is made on franchising its management.

It is now almost a year since John Lewis-style partnership Circle was appointed preferred bidder for the management franchise in a schedule devised by the East of England Strategic Health Authority (SHA) that envisaged Circle taking control on June 1 this year.

For that to have happened the franchise contract should have been signed in late February. Eight months later that has still not happened.

Hinchingbrooke is one of the smallest district general hospitals in England in terms of the population it serves, and fears for its future started to re-emerge alongside new Whitehall thinking that a population of at least 300,000 was needed to provide effective acute healthcare. Hinchingbrooke's catchment is more like 200,000 folk in Huntingdonshire and parts of Fenland and South Cambridgeshire.

Much of the delay resulted from minute examination by HM Treasury, but that process is now believed to be complete, and the decision is back on health ministers' desks.

The Hunts Post asked Mr Lansley, who is also MP for South Cambridgeshire, to explain the delay and offer reassurance about the hospital's future, but he turned down the request.

Instead, a Department of Health spokesman said this week: "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.

"The appraisal will be completed as soon as possible, but it is not possible to say precisely when a decision will be announced."

The SHA is till working on a new assumption that Circle will take over the hospital at the turn of the year, but the delay in Whitehall is starting to make that prospect seem hard to achieve.

In spite - or maybe because - of its small catchment, Hinchingbrooke Hospital has done well in recent inspections by the health and social care watchdog the Care Quality Commission.

Following an unannounced inspection in May and subsequent follow-ups with patients, the CQC reported very favourably at the beginning of October on the quality of care provided.

Then the commission placed Hinchingbrooke in second place in the Eastern NHS region and 24th out of 161 acute trusts nationally following a survey of nearly 500 inpatients.