Circle Healthcare is also set to force nurses to work 12-hour shifts, warn union leaders
By Richard Wachman | 26 October 2012
“Patients are paying the price for the government’s eagerness to mix medicine with the money motive” – Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary
Britain’s first private operator of an NHS hospital is poised to axe up to 50 nurses, union leaders have revealed to Exaro.
Nurses who keep their jobs at Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which remains part of the National Health Service, will be forced to work longer shifts – typically 12 hours long.
Circle Healthcare, which took charge of the financially-troubled Cambridgeshire hospital last February, announced yesterday that Hinchingbrooke has lost £4.1 million in the first six months of this financial year, around double its forecast. The company says that it will have to make up any full-year deficit from its own resources.
It would not comment on plans for the hospital’s 750 nurses.
But Karen Webb, regional head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), told Exaro that Circle representatives had made it plain that the move to longer shifts was to reduce costs.
“The company initially told us that 50 jobs would be lost, then they came back to say it would be more like 46 or 47,” she said. “The cuts will fall in areas such as ‘accident and emergency’, operating theatres and medical admissions.”
Phil Green, regional organiser for Unison, the public-sector union, said that only last month Circle axed 25 cleaners, which represented 40 per cent of Hinchingbrooke’s cleaning staff.
When Circle won the contract to run Hinchingbrooke, the government trumpeted it as an opportunity for the private sector to turn round the fortunes of a near-bankrupt hospital.
Under the terms of the deal, Circle can take at least £2 million in ‘profit’ each year even if the hospital is in the red. Latest figures put it at £38.4 million in debt.
In addition, the parent company, Circle Holdings, lost more than £39 million last year. But the group bolstered its balance sheet in June by raising nearly £48 million from investors.
Exaro revealed in June that concern over patient care at Hinchingbrooke led Unison to write privately to Earl Howe, health minister, seeking assurances that patient care would not be allowed to suffer if Circle hits financial difficulties.
Howe refused to give any guarantees, Unison said.
Since then, Circle has seen patient-approval ratings plummet.
In May, Hinchingbrooke was top out of 46 hospital trusts in a regional league table, but has lost ground every month since. It has sunk to 20th place after its rating for patient satisfaction tumbled 22 per-centage points.
NHS Midlands and East, the strategic health authority, set up the league table to score hospitals on how likely patients would be to recommend them to others.
It contrasts with the positive picture painted by Circle of Hinchingbrooke only two months ago. Ali Parsa, chief executive and a former Goldman Sachs banker, said that waiting times had been cut and relations with staff were among the best in the country.
Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, told Exaro: “Patients are paying the price for the government’s eagerness to mix medicine with the money motive.”
A spokesman for Circle Healthcare said: “I do not think that we are going to be responding on this occasion.”
The RCN said that there is solid evidence of a link between reduced numbers of nursing staff and falling standards of patient care.
Howard Catton, RCN’s head of policy, said: “Where ratios fall below certain levels, patient outcomes are worse, with more accidents and even higher mortality rates.”
Webb said that working 12-hour shifts for nurses is a specific concern. While some nurses preferred longer shifts because it meant working fewer days a week, she said, “research shows that most accidents or mishaps happen during the handover after long shifts.”
Mistakes such as sending patients to the wrong operating theatre, or medicines going astray, were more likely, she said.
Several research papers back up the RCN. One, a 2004 American study entitled ‘the working hours of hospital staff nurses and patient safety’, found that errors or near-errors were more likely when “nurses work 12 or more hours at a stretch.”