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Protest at Whittington Hospital board meeting over property deal with Grenfell Tower firm

Hospital chairman says Whittington will close if it does not press ahead with contract

02 November, 2017 — By Emily Finch, Tom Foot

Protesters inside yesterday’s (Wednesday’s) board meeting

THE chairman of the Whittington told campaigners yesterday (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!”

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 New Journal 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 came into effect 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-executive 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. Ms Harrington said that the hospital would publish answers to a series of questions tabled at the meeting about the deal.

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

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