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‘Whittington Hospital will close if deal fails’

Chief’s warning to protesters who invade boardroom over link with Grenfell Tower contractor

03 November, 2017 — By Tom Foot

Shirley Franklin leads protests outside the hospital

THE chairman of the Whit­t­ington told campaigners on Wednes­day that backing out of a 10-year deal with a private company would “shut down the hospital” after campaigners poured into a board meeting in protest.

Steve Hitchins delivered the apocalyptic warning in the Highgate NHS trust’s boardroom after being urged to scrap its NHS land strategy partnership with a subsidiary of lead Grenfell Tower contractor Rydon.

The Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition had protested outside the hospital about a decision to set up a joint venture with the subsidiary, Ryhurst – announced by the board a fortnight ago.

DWHC chairwoman Shirley Franklin, who led the protest into the boardroom, said it was “immoral” that a company associated with the Grenfell tragedy should be able to profit in any way from the NHS.

She told the board: “We were in this board meeting in 2013 when there was a disgusting decision to sell off half our hospital, an appalling decision. We reversed that decision and we are here again to reverse another disgusting, bad decision that this board has made.

“What a pathetic, crass irresponsible decision you board have taken. You have to withdraw the contract. Drop it!”

A banner reading “Keep Rydon out of Whittington Hospital” was unfurled behind Mr Hitchins and chief executive Siobhan Harrington and there were chants of “Whittington board, shame on you!”

Whittington chairman Steve Hitchins, centre, hears protesters call for the reversal of the ‘disgusting, bad decision this board has made’

The board is claiming that, in an extraordinary sequence of events, it agreed the deal three days before the Grenfell fire and, after the disaster, sought legal advice about whether it could abandon the project.

It insists that the legal advice it received was that backing out would provoke an expensive and time-consuming legal challenge from Ryhurst over breach of contract – and so decided to press ahead.

The Tribune has asked for the legal advice to be made public.

Mr Hitchins said: “We just can’t afford the legal costs. The future of this trust is far more important… Right now, Ryhurst is the best person for the job.” He insisted that the “estates strategy” had to be started quickly before new legislation that would see receipts from land and buildings currently owned by the Whittington going to a central NHS body instead of the NHS trust. As a result, he said: “If we reverse this decision, I predict this hospital will close.”

Whittington board members pleaded with campaigners that they did not have a “crystal ball” and should not be blamed for picking Ryhurst three days before the horrific fire devastated the Grenfell estate, in west London, on June 14. Dozens of people lost their lives in a tragedy that is the subject of a judicial inquiry which will establish whether materials used in the refurbishment of the tower contributed to the blaze.

Non-exec director Anu Singh told campaigners: “After Grenfell, we did ask: is it possible to stop this? We did take time to understand: was it a choice or was it a commitment? We sought legal advice.

But the idea that we have somehow chosen this is just not right.”

The Whittington now plans to set up a company with Ryhurst that will oversee and aim to profit from a major programme of land and buildings sales already agreed last year.

The company – set up on June 12 – will use the sales to modernise buildings on 48 sites owned by the Whittington across north London.

Rydon has not commented on the contract negotiations, yet to be formally rubber-stamped by the NHS Improvement contracts body.

Comment: Whittington again at heart of battle to save the NHS

SINCE the explosive dispute over sell-offs and job cuts in 2013, there has been an amicable, almost benign relationship between the hospital’s board and the campaigning Defend Whittington Hospital Coalition.

This came to an abrupt end this week with uncomfortable scenes in the boardroom as both sides traded accusations of “not listening”.

Once again, the NHS finds itself locked in an ethical dispute. On one side, the Coalition expresses disgust that the trust should enter into a 10-year partnership with a company closely linked to the Grenfell disaster so soon after the tragedy.

The dust has barely settled on one of the worst tragedies in living memory but the board argued this week that, in business, contracts are not awarded “like a beauty pageant”, with victory going to the most palatable entry.

Hospital directors plead freak timing in their defence. One director asked how they could be blamed for not being able to see into the future. They did not have a “crystal ball” that could predict the Grenfell tragedy.

And yet clairvoyant powers are not required to see how the future of the NHS could be threatened by private companies.

A string of private companies have all tried and failed to run successful NHS services in neighbouring Camden. The UnitedHealth experiment with three GP surgeries, which began in 2008, failed spectacularly. Private finance initiatives have had a devastating impact on the balances of three main hospitals.

Companies are not in the NHS to care for people. They are there, understandably, to register a return. Some will cut corners; some go bust, leaving patients in the lurch. Who knows what the implications of the judicial inquiry into Grenfell will be for the company Rydon?

There are also unanswered questions about the hospital’s chief executive Simon Pleydell’s mysterious departure in June. Was this connected to the decision to pick Ryhurst as the hospital’s preferred candidate? Pleydell announced he was leaving a few days before the deal was agreed in June, having in the weeks before expressed his desire to stay on for the next five years.

We have noticed that the government’s barely concealed drive to privatise the NHS appears to have been welcomed by some doctors – witness GPs in Bedfordshire campaigning this week for their right to draw in private patients.

Unless Mrs May – and this, of course, is unlikely – abandons her health policies or there is a change of government, the NHS faces a slow death.

The fight for the survival of the Whittington Hospital is – as it was years ago – part of the fight for the survival of the NHS.


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