Pilot scheme is a winner on the Wiltshire wards

  • @MattChorley

The schmaltzy new John Lewis Christmas advert has melted the nation's heart, notably because it does not include the retail giant's latest area of expertise: vomit bowls and specimen pots.

Middle England's shopping grotto might seem a world away from a medical store cupboard on the outskirts of Swindon, but the retailer is now the model for a whole new way of running the public sector.

Tucked away at the side of the Great Western Hospital, social care staff from the local council and health workers from the NHS trust are leading the way in a revolution of public services, with advice from Britain's best-known staff-owned business.

Last month, the 750 staff officially launched SEQOL, a not-for-profit social enterprise which has won a £30m taxpayer-funded contract to run adult social care for the next four and a half years. It runs two medical wards offering beds for stroke sufferers, among other services.

Free from the stranglehold of the town hall or Department of Health, they can restructure services, change shift patterns, improve staff benefits. Oh, and overhaul the storage cupboard. "We have saved a lot of money on our linen," boasts healthcare assistant Lisa Simpkins. Pricing packets of pillow cases at £15 on the cupboard door has stopped staff wasting laundry. Every cupboard displays the price of what is inside. So 100 vomit bowls cost £15.03, while 100 bed pans are £14.48. It has cut waste.

"People can just get on and do things," says Jane Trethewey, director of operations. "They don't have to wait for permission for everything."

One of the biggest ideas to transfer from John Lewis is the Colleague Assembly, which gives staff a direct say in how the organisation is run, including having access to the company's finances. The reason they were able to become a mutual is a promise to deliver the same – or better – services more cheaply.

Heather Mitchell, chief executive of SEQOL, stresses that, unlike John Lewis, there will be no dividend for staff. "If we make a surplus we would reinvest that in the services or staff training."

But whoever runs services, it is reassuring that some things never change. So far, patients agree. Colin Wadham, 83, heaps praise on the staff and says he has been sleeping better since transferring from the main hospital. "But the less said about the food the better."

Maybe John Lewis could get colleagues at Waitrose to help in the kitchen.