Private firm starts running NHS hospital for first time and promises to make it one of top 10 in the country

Company say they plan to make failing hospital one of top 10 in the countryFirm will need to tackle 39million debt

A private firm has become the first to manage an NHS hospital today.

Independent firm Circle will officially start running the Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire today, which was threatened with closure as it struggled with debts of 40million.

The contract was signed in November following a 13-month procurement period as Circle came up against competition from 19 initial bidders.

Health care assistants work in the stroke ward at Hinchingbrooke Hospital in November

Health care assistants work in the stroke ward at Hinchingbrooke Hospital in November – they will be managed by a private firm from today

A spokesman said staff from Circle and Hinchingbrooke had been working closely to plan for the hospital's future, and today they published their plan for its transformation.

More than 1,200 of the 1,700-strong workforce attended one of 17 four-hour “partnership sessions”, to have an input into the plan.

Four priorities have been set: patient safety, patient experience, staff engagement and value for money.

Chief executive Ali Parsa said: 'Today, an ambitious programme will be unveiled – to turn a hospital once labelled as 'a basket case' into one of the top 10 in the country.

'The plan came together in unprecedented sessions with 1,200 NHS staff, who gathered to share their vision for their hospital's transformation.

'Like John Lewis, Circle are employee co-owned, and have a track record of creating best-in-class hospitals by devolving power to the clinicians and staff who are closest to patients.

'We are confident that we can do it again in Hinchingbrooke.'

Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire was on the brink of closure before new management was brought in

Future Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire was on the brink of closure before new management was brought in

Dr Stephen Dunn, director of policy and strategy at NHS Midlands and East, said the challenges facing the NHS meant “new solutions” were needed.

'Without this franchise, the future of Hinchingbrooke could have been uncertain,' he added.

'We are not privatising, we are bringing in new management. The hospital can plan a future where its staff and assets remain within the NHS, energised by the innovation which its new partner will bring.'

Circle operates under a partnership model, where staff ranging from consultants to cleaners are co-owners in the business.

Nigel Beverley, Hinchingbrooke Health Care NHS Trust's chief executive, said: 'Patients can be assured that the quality of their care remains our top priority and we can now look forward to building a bright future for Hinchingbrooke.'

The company is the first non-state provider to take over an entire hospital.

While private sector firms already operate units within the NHS – such as hip replacement centres – Circle will become the first to deliver a full range of NHS district general hospital services.

The announcement last year came under criticism.

Shadow health minister Liz Kendall questioned why the private sector company – which has “close links” with the Conservative Party and no experience of running Accident and Emergency or maternity services – was selected.

'Patients and the public will be deeply worried that this morning they have seen this Government's true vision for the future of our NHS, with the wholesale transfer of the management of entire hospitals to the private sector,' she said.

Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which opened in 1983, has a maternity ward and an Accident and Emergency unit and caters for more than 161,000 people in the Huntingdon area of Cambridgeshire.

The first task facing Circle will be dealing with its legacy of 39 million debts, despite an annual turnover of 90 million.