Head of pioneering PFI hospital resigns

Ian Herbert,North
Friday 21 February 2003 01:00

The chief executive of the first PFI hospital has resigned before the release of a government inspection report that is expected to be heavily critical.

There had been speculation about Nick Wood's position at the North Cumbria Acute Hospitals NHS Trust since he failed to appear when Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, arrived to meet local health leaders and open the coronary care unit at one of the trust's hospitals on 6 February. By then, the trust had received a draft of the Commission for Health Improvement (CHI) report.

Conflicting reasons were given for his absence. Some hospital officials said Mr Wood, formerly chief executive of East Cheshire NHS Trust, was ill; others claimed he was "asked to leave the site''; others put it down to "annual leave".

Barbara Cannon, the trust's chairman, has indicated now that she has accepted Mr Wood's resignation.

Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, one of the trust's two hospitals and the first PFI hospital, was opened by Tony Blair in April 2000. It has since been plagued by problems including patients being drenched with water from broken pipes, sewage spilling into operating theatres and allegedly poor maintenance. Unions and medical staff blamed cost-cutting under the private finance initiative, claiming it had left the hospital with 89 fewer beds than the one it replaced.

An investigation began two years ago when a rise in emergency admissions led the hospital to cancel urgent operations and keep patients waiting on trolleys. The resulting report blamed the management of patients rather than a cut in numbers of beds and made 19 recommendations. The public service union Unison said the report had failed to address the "real problem", which was a reduction in the number of beds when the hospital was built.

The findings of the CHI's routine clinical governance investigation, held in October, will be published next week. But the expected negative tenor of the report is an open secret. Some local sources suggested that the trust may have been awarded a poor ranking, one out of a possible four, for some areas of management, signifying it had shown "little or no progress in strategic planning''.

The trust was formed in April 2001. Mr Wood joined in September 2001. In the intervening six months several potential senior directors left for other posts because no senior appointments could be made without a chief executive. Since Mr Wood's arrival, the trust has had three finance directors. The trust has had a high level of cancelled operations and infection outbreaks. More than 180 patients have waited longer than 12 months for surgery.

A trust spokeswoman said: "We are not saying [Mr Wood's] resignation is directly related to the CHI report but we have to put it in the context of what is happening within the trust."

Ms Cannon said: "The past two years have been a challenging time. This has been ... a time when patients rightly expected the high standards promised in the Government's NHS plan and the trust has not been achieving all the targets set. There has also been increased pressure ... because of a rising number of emergency admissions." Peter Scott, the deputy chief executive, becomes acting chief executive.

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