The Department of Health has held discussions about “international players” running up to 20 NHS hospitals, according to confidential emails.

Correspondence between DH managing director for provider development Ian Dalton and consultants McKinsey and Company was obtained by campaigners at Spinwatch under the Freedom of Information Act.

An email from the consultants to Mr Dalton in November last year said there had been “good discussions” on “how international hospital provider groups may help to tackle the performance improvement of English hospitals.”

It said there was: “interest in [a] new solution for 10-20 hospitals”, but said this would be “starting from a mindset of one at a time” due to “various political constraints”.

The consultants suggested a figure of £500m revenue “on the table” and a “free hand on staff management” would be needed for “international players” to run hospitals.

Private involvement has been suggested as a solution for NHS trusts with financial difficulties that may not be able to attain foundation trust status. One hospital trust, Hinchingbrooke Health Care, is already set to be run in a franchise arrangement by private firm Circle, although the deal has been delayed awaiting ministerial sign off.

Further correspondence between McKinsey and DH director of provider delivery Matthew Kershaw also reveals the department has had discussions with German firm Helios Healthcare, which runs a number of hospitals. The agenda for a meeting between the consultants and the DH in February includes the item “London/Helios discussion”.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “It is not unusual for the Department of Health to hold meetings with external organisations. Any decisions to involve outside organisations, such as the independent sector or foundation trusts, in running the management of NHS hospitals would be led by the NHS locally and in all cases NHS staff and assets would remain wholly owned by the NHS”.