Jeremy Laurance: It's a risk – but it could turn the tide of public opinion

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Yesterday was a big day for a small district general hospital in Cambridgeshire which became the first in the 63-year history of the NHS to be run by a private company.

It was a big day, too, for Ali Parsa, the charismatic chief executive of Circle Partnership, who now has 24 months to deliver on his promise to turn the failing Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Huntingdon into one of the top 10 in the country.

If he succeeds he could help turn the tide of disapproval that greets private sector involvement in the NHS and provide a model for other district general hospitals struggling to balance their books.

But he is taking a big risk. The 223-bed trust is £40m in debt and the sum is growing by £2.5m a year. Its buildings are more than 25 years old and ill-equipped to meet the demands of modern health care.

Mr Parsa's company has presented thousands of pages of detail including a 16-point plan to turn the hospital round, which has been enough to convince the local strategic health authority.

But their only experience in the NHS is of running treatment centres in Nottingham and Bradford. That is very different from managing a fully-functioning hospital with accident and emergency department.