The DHSC Annual Report for 2021/22 includes an evasive and duplicitous section on the New Hospitals Programme which is supposed to be delivering Boris Johnson’s 2019 pledge to build 40 (later increased to 48) “new hospitals” by 2030.
The Report seeks to divert attention from the embarrassing reality that since 2019 no new projects have been started or are even close to starting, and that nowhere near enough capital has been allocated to the NHS to enable anything like 40 hospitals to be built.
The DHSC therefore wraps up the inaction in a series of long, vague and ultimately empty claims to be hard at it, if not in Matt Hancock’s infamous phrase “working round the clock”. For example:
“We are embedding expertise from specialists in all areas of hospital design, build and operation into the programme, working closely to develop revised national policies and standards to deliver new facilities for both staff and patients that will be at the cutting edge of modern technology, innovation, sustainability, and will drive excellent patient care.”
“… We are working closely with all trusts within the programme to plan how and when new hospitals will be built across the decade.” (page 39)
So what has happened? Nothing. None of the new schemes has not even reached the stage of agreeing an Outline Business Case. Instead the DHSC boasts of the opening of “two of the forty eight hospitals” – both of which were planned and in progress long before the 40 new hospitals pledge was made.
They are the Northern Centre for Cancer Care – effectively a new wing of Carlisle’s Cumberland Infirmary, and the Royal Liverpool Hospital, the failed PFI project halted in its tracks in January 2018 by the collapse of construction giant Carillion, and eventually completed, years late, at huge extra cost to the public purse.
We are told “five further hospitals are currently under construction” – but all of these also pre-date Johnson’s 40 hospital promise, including the other huge PFI failure, Birmingham’s Midland Metropolitan Hospital.
And as a further tacit reminder that this whole programme is at a standstill and serving only to waste everyone’s time, the DHSC report admits that there have still been no decisions made on which eight schemes of over 120 hopeful bids submitted by desperate trust bosses might be selected to make up the 48: “The selection process is ongoing, and the government aims to make an announcement as soon as possible.” (p40)
One of the schemes bogged down in the morass of vacuous rhetoric is the plan to rebuild Whipps Cross Hospital in North East London, now subsumed into the giant Barts Health Trust.
The Barts Board Assurance Framework notes that a DHSC letter from Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in 2019, confirmed Whipps Cross was one of six redevelopment schemes to share in the initial £2.7bn funding, “subject to business case approvals:” it was then confirmed as one of eight “pathfinders” in the New Hospitals Programme (NHP).
That might have sounded good at the time – but since 2019, other than a demand by the NHP for the project to be resubmitted including a revised version costing no more than £400m, nothing has happened.
Last July Downing Street spin doctors claimed, falsely, that: “The funding for the initial schemes has been approved and by 2024, six hospitals will be completed with a further 30 under way.”
As this becomes exposed as more and more of a fantasy, local MPs are becoming restless.
When Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy recently asked in the Commons about progress on the Whipps Cross project, Health Minister Will Quince could only reply that the whole programme is log-jammed: “decisions on specific business cases for schemes which are expected to be funded after 2025 are dependent on the approval of the programme wide business case.”
This resulted in a spokesperson for the Whipps Cross Redevelopment admitting: “Given the pace of progress that we continue to experience in relation to the national New Hospital Programme” they can see no way construction of the new hospital could begin “before 2025 at the earliest.”
Barts Trust Board papers for January also indicate growing frustration at not even having a schedule to draw up detailed proposals:
“we continue to await further details from the national NHP team about the next steps, including a timeline for submitting the Outline Business Case (OBC)” (p119)
And while the NHP has apparently drawn up its own ‘programme business case,’ it was one so vague it “did not provide scheme-specific assessments or endorse any agreed funding envelopes for individual schemes.” (p119)
The Board’s Whipps Cross Redevelopment Update (p119) draws the conclusion the whole project seems certain to be delayed:
“We can point to good progress on all the work over the last 18 months that has been within our direct control. However, given the pace of progress that we continue to experience in relation to the national programme, we now must report that our previous high-level programme assumptions – with construction on the main hospital works commencing in 2024 – risk no longer being feasible. Having reviewed the key programme milestones, we now assume construction of the main hospital works can only commence in 2025 at the earliest, which would mean construction potentially completing towards the end of 2028/29.”
There are even doubts over the funding of the first stage of the project, building a new multi-storey car-park to open up spare land for construction. Health secretary Steve Barclay announced he had approved “up to £28 million” for this – but last week it emerged the funding had not, in fact, been approved.
Whipps Cross redevelopment director Alastair Finney explained the “elephant in the room” for the government was (as The Lowdown has consistently reported) the shortage of funding.
Last August the BBC reported that two of the London schemes would not be completed until at least 2027. It seems even that might be over-optimistic.
If you like our content please support our campaigning journalism to protect health care for all.
Our goal is to inform people, hold our politicians to account and help to build change through evidence based ideas.
Everyone should have access to comprehensive healthcare, but our NHS needs support. You can help us to continue to counter bad policy, battle neglect of the NHS and correct dangerous mis-infomation.
Supporters of the NHS are crucial in sustaining our health service and with your help we will be able to engage more people in securing its future.
Please donate to help support our campaigning NHS research and journalism.