An NHS boss has denied that plans to hand over the management of a district general hospital to a private company amount to “privatisation” of the service.

The only NHS bidder to run debt-burdened Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Huntingdon - Cambridge University Hospitals Trust - withdrew earlier this week, leaving five private health providers in the running.

Staff and assets will remain in the NHS. They are not being sold

When the contract is awarded by NHS East of England, Hinchingbrooke will become the first NHS hospital of its kind in the UK to be operated by a private firm.

Health union Unison today claimed the hospital is being used in a “dangerous experiment”, warning that the remaining bidders have no experience of running accident and emergency departments.

But NHS East of England director of strategy Stephen Dunn said all the companies in the race had provided elective surgery, such as knee and hip replacements, to NHS patients in treatment centres, and one had enlisted neighbouring Peterborough and Stamford Trust as a clinical partner in its bid.

Dr Dunn told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “The NHS remains firmly part of this process.”

He added: “Staff and assets will remain in the NHS. They are not being sold. This is not about selling the family silver. This is not about privatisation. These worries are just unfounded.”

A private operator would run the hospital under NHS budgets and NHS terms and conditions and would face “robust” monitoring from the health authority to ensure standards were maintained, he said.

But Karen Jennings, health spokeswoman for union Unison, told the programme: “The new hospital management have made inroads into tackling the deficit making this whole outsourcing process an unnecessary costly and dangerous experiment.”