There are 2,300 hospitals in the United Kingdom. Only one of them is managed by a private firm. That is Hinchingbrooke Hospital near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. The buildings it operates in are owned by the NHS. It treats NHS patients without charging them in the same way as any other NHS hospital. However it is managed by an independent company, Circle Health.

The person who made the decision to contract out (or, if your prefer, “privatise”) the hospital’s management was made by the then Health Secretary Andy Burnham. The NHS Trust that ran it had built up £40 million of debt and Circle – who have a ten year contract – have found it challenging to keep within budget.

But in general Hinchingbroke has been a success story. On such measures as the A&E four hour waiting time standard; the 18 weeks
Referral to Treatment  standard; the Cancer Waiting Time Standards and the six weeks maximum waiting time standard for access to diagnostic treatments it has performed better than average. It has also consistently performed well on the family and friends test.

So well done Mr Burnham.

The Guardian reports this morning a review by Sir David Dalton, the chief executive of the Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust, proposes extending this principle:

“Management of more NHS hospitals could be handed over to private companies in a shakeup of England’s healthcare system, according to a government-commissioned review.

“It suggests the establishment of concessions by which companies were given contracts to operate publicly-funded hospitals and points to Spain as an example that could be followed.”

In a letter to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Sir David says:

“It is a key principle of the NHS Constitution that the NHS “aspires to the highest standards of excellence”.

“Despite our best efforts we have struggled to use the opportunities a National Health Service affords us to reduce the variation gap between the best and worst performance in the system to ensure excellence for all. That there is such a difference in the quality of services provided to patients around the country is wrong. We must enable the very best services to further develop whilst reducing
variation in quality across the country.

“Different circumstances and historical patterns of need means there is no single model for delivering high standards of care. By looking at a range of options for providers of care, we want to enable those hospitals that do well to do more, whilst empowering others who are struggling with the opportunity to improve. The adoption and development of new organisational models is
for the sector to drive, not the centre. The role of the centre is to create a more permissive environment, removing barriers and
enabling – but not dictating – change, and to ensure this works in the interests of patients and the health service more widely.

“Through my review I aim to provide the sector with the vision and tools it needs to use these models to improve the quality of outcomes for patients whilst ensuring their longer term economic sustainability.”

Any hospitals – even those performing poorly – that are put under independent management will offer a focus of controversy.

There will be noisy demonstrations from the trade unions. The term “privatisation” will be used to give the public as much anxiety as possible – dishonestly conflating private firms running the hospitals with the idea that patients will be charge for operations.

I suppose Mr Burnham will be there at the rallies as scaremonger-in-chief. In casting himself in such a role he is proving utterly shameless.