HSJ’s roundup of the day’s essential stories and debate

Today’s must know: Emergency savings drive and stretch targets fail to reduce provider deficit

Today’s risk: Jeremy Hunt intervenes in junior doctors contract row

Today’s talking point: Suffolk contract was “not long enough” for change, says Serco

Flimsy finances

Jeremy Hunt’s assurance that the NHS will “balance the books” by the end of 2015-16 is looking pretty flimsy.

HSJ analysis on Monday has shown the “stretch targets” and emergency measures imposed by NHS regulators over the summer will make no more than a small dent in the huge provider deficit expected in 2015-16.

After providers forecast a combined year-end deficit of £2.1bn at the start of the year, Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority ordered them to revisit their financial plans.

Emergency measures were announced, such as a recruitment freeze for non-clinical roles, while many trusts were asked to work to new stretch targets or control totals.

But when we obtained up to date plans for 34 of the foundation trusts that Monitor identified as having the “biggest deficits”, it produced a combined planned deficit of £636m. This compared with an original combined deficit plan for these FTs of £657m - an improvement of just 3.2 per cent. 

If this were to be replicated across the whole provider sector, it would reduce the total deficit by only £67m.

So, what sort of odds could you get on the Department of Health staying within its spending limit this year? One HSJ reader had an answer: “I asked Ladbrokes what its odds are for Hunt’s assertion that the NHS will break even in 2015-16. Their reply was 2,000,000,000 to 1.”

Jeremy’s surprise

The health secretary has made a surprise intervention into the row over junior doctors’ new contract.

On Monday, Mr Hunt offered the chair of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors committee an invitation to meet with him to discuss the government’s proposals to impose a contract from next year.

As a result, NHS Employers cancelled all of its engagement events with junior doctors, which had been scheduled to start on Monday night in London.

It is unclear at this stage what Mr Hunt will have to say to the BMA representative. The committee has refused to engage with NHS Employers since walking out of talks in October last year, and then on Saturday it voted to ballot 38,000 doctors on whether to take industrial action in response to the government’s plans.

Exit interview

As the outsourcing giant Serco prepares to wrap up its community service provision in Suffolk, the company’s manager for the region has reflected on what it has learned throughout the course of its three-year contract.

Speaking exclusively to HSJ as the company prepares to hand over the contract to a consortium of three local NHS providers, Abigail Tierney said the £140m value of the contract was “not adequate” and the company wasn’t given enough time to change services in the region.

Ms Tierney, Serco’s outgoing development director, said: “I think three years [was] not long enough to do the level of transformational change that both Serco and the commissioners were looking for.”

The company experienced a number of challenges with the contract. Ms Tierney contends that information the company received as part of the contract’s due diligence process was wrong, as activity was not recorded correctly by staff.