PFI petition handed to health bosses

Rob Platts reports from a recent board meeting of Barts Health NHS Trust

Barts Health NHS TrustA petition has been signed by 1,543 people calling for an end to a PFI (Private Finance Initiative) deal for local health services that they claim is “morally wrong”.

The Waltham Forest Save Our NHS group handed in the petition at a meeting in November of Barts Health Trust, which runs Whipps Cross University Hospital in Leytonstone.

PFI was introduced in the 1990s as a way for the private sector to fund largescale public capital projects, such as new hospitals. But many have since questioned whether they deliver value for money to the taxpayer as interest payments mount up over the lifespan of the very long contracts these projects often involve.

A £1.1billion PFI deal was signed in 2006 by Barts Health Trust for the redevelopment of two of its hospitals, Bartholomew’s and the Royal London. The debt accrued since – £93million a year according to most recent accounts – is the biggest of any NHS trust in the country.

Waltham Forest Save Our NHS campaigner Dr Coral Jones told the Barts Health Trust meeting: “It is our opinion that PFI is morally wrong and an odious debt.

“That public money is being diverted from patient care to private profit is a serious wrong. It is an outrage that paying the PFI debt should trump maintaining staff pay and posts,  especially at a time of cuts and crisis in our NHS.”

In response, the new chairman of the Barts Health Trust board, John Bacon, explained that even if there was a will to get out of the PFI deal, neither the trust, nor the government, has a spare £1billion, and the contract is due to run for another 35 years.

Analysis shows that the PFI’s debt interest payments, as well as the trust’s deficit, are all  predicted to rise in the millions of pounds each year. The unitary repayment charge, or contractors’ fee, is costing Barts £131m a year.

But while the trust has no plans to fight the PFI deal, it may seek financial assistance to make payments more manageable. Campaigner Mary Burnett also told the board: “Even if the
trust is powerless to act independently at the present time, it has a moral responsibility to
engage and promote a national discussion on tackling the disastrous PFI contracts which
are crippling our NHS.”

In June this year, more than 80 doctors working for Barts Health Trust signed a letter that was sent to top NHS officials, including the health secretary Jeremy Hunt and NHS head Simon Stevens, highlighting unsafe practice.

It also called for a banking-style bailout of the PFI debt. Since March Barts Health Trust has been in ‘special measures’ following a Care Quality Commission report which highlighted
a number of serious failings at the trust.

At November’s board meeting, a scientist from the Whipps Cross Cancer Unit asked when the trust could expect to be out of special measures. Chief executive Alwen Williams revealed that the trust aims to return to normal management in 18 months’ time.

The NHS website states: “Special measures are designed to produce results quickly, and a trust is usually expected to have made improvements within 12 months.”