The most important stories in health policy today

Case closed

Red faces at the Crown Prosecution Service after the first corporate manslaughter case against an NHS trust was thrown out of court by a senior judge.

Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Trust was scheduled to begin its defence case at Inner London Crown Court next week, but Mr Justice Coulson instructed the jury on Thursday morning to return a not guilty verdict.

Dr Errol Cornish, a consultant anaesthetist who was being prosecuted in tandem for gross negligence manslaughter, was also cleared.

In his ruling, the judge said, the case against Dr Cornish was “as far removed from a gross negligence manslaughter case as it is possible to be”, and was consistently critical of the evidence given by the prosecution’s expert witness.

We can also now report a gaffe by health secretary Jeremy Hunt in relation to the case.

On the second day of the trial, he posted a link to a news report about the case, with what the judge described as a “highly inappropriate” comment, which said: “Tragic case from which huge lessons must be learned.”

The judge, Mr Justice Coulson directed that Mr Hunt’s tweet be taken down and imposed a temporary ban on reporting its existence.

He said: “It is highly inappropriate for anybody to pass comment which might be said to know the result of a trial before that result is known. I suppose, potentially, in a very serious case, it could be regarded as a contempt of court. I would hope that everybody would know that. Sadly, these days, many people in public life don’t know that.

“I think it’s right that there be no future comment about possible results in this case until it is known. That includes the tweet from the present health secretary that I’ve been shown. These days it is hard to have the word ‘tweet’ without ‘ill advised’ before it.”

Whether or not it was Mr Hunt that posted the comment on his impressively busy Twitter account, is perhaps a question for another day.

Banging some heads together

Junior doctors and NHS Employers are still locked in their suicide embrace over plans to change trainee medics’ terms and conditions.

Talks are continuing via Acas but on Thursday HSJ learned presidents and chairs from six royal colleges and 15 medical associations and societies wrote to both sides, and Jeremy Hunt, to urge them to reach a negotiated deal before “long term damage” is done.

The private letter comes at a time when both sides have made progress and the government has been prepared to offer new concessions to doctors working weekends.

It makes the point that the strength of feeling among junior doctors has been building for years and the government should not spread resources “more thinly”.

But the 21 medical leaders also make clear further industrial action is not the answer either.

Their message was underlined when NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens essentially warned both sides that they supping in the last chance saloon.

He told his board meeting on Thursday: “We welcome the transfer of contract negotiating responsibilities to Sir David Dalton, chief executive of Salford hospitals, on behalf of hospitals and other NHS employers. If he is unable to get a fair agreement with the BMA that works for both sides, it’s not obvious that anyone can.”

Happy days are here again (maybe)

A bit of superficially good financial news: NHS England’s finance director Paul Baumann has said he thinks the commissioning sector can double its projected underspend to £400m by the end of the year.

Based on December data, NHS England was forecasting a £207m surplus for the commissioning side. But at Thursday’s board meeting Mr Baumann said early signs from January’s figures were that this will likely rise to £400m.

Happily, that is exactly the amount needed, in combination with various panic measures at the Department of Health, to offset the £1.8bn projected provider sector overspend.

So is everything going to be all right after all? Well, Mr Baumann pointed out that keeping the system in balance will still rely on providers containing their combined deficits to the agreed £1.8bn.

That is far from a foregone conclusion.

And the extra savings NHS England has found won’t help next year. This is because, as Mr Baumann pointed out, most of the extra savings are one-offs. For instance, money put aside for historic continuing healthcare claims has not been spent and can be banked at the end of 2015-16, but it won’t be there to mitigate deficits next year.

Mr Baumann is one of a dwindling number of executive directors left on the NHS England board hired by previous chief Sir David Nicholson. He heralded an unprecedentedly small overspend in specialised commissioning with a strikingly Nicholsonian turn of phrase: it “represents a real transformation in grip” compared with recent years, he said. There will need to be more where that came from if the NHS is going to remain in balance this year and beyond.