WORKFORCE Staff morale at Hinchingbrooke Health Care Trust has seen a “minor but consistent deterioration” since it was taken over by a private provider, Circle’s chief executive has admitted.

Nearly one year to the day the trust was awarded to the private sector provider, Circle chief executive Steve Melton said the “unquestionably disappointing” initial results from this year’s staff survey showed “current engagement levels” were lower than those in comparative district general hospitals.

He made the remarks in a report, due to be discussed at a board meeting on Thursday. “Overall the results are less positive than we had hoped and show a minor but consistent deterioration as compared to last year’s results,” Mr Melton added.

Circle named staff engagement as a priority area, alongside value for money, patient safety and patient experience when it took over on 1 February 2012.  

The Royal College of Nursing said shrinking headcounts had increased pressure on remaining nursing and administrative staff and morale was “extremely low”.

RCN regional director for the eastern region Karen Webb said: “Staff are bewildered and angry about the way changes are being introduced at Hinchingbrooke.”   

A trust spokeswoman told HSJ: “Hinchingbrooke currently ranks as top A&E in the country and top full-service hospital of 46 in the Midlands and East, received a clean bill of health from the Care Quality Commission for the first time and has cut the annual deficit from £10m to £3.7m. This pace of change has meant difficult adjustments to shifts, roles and working patterns.”

She added “employee engagement was core to Circle’s DNA” and was a key priority in the year ahead.

Meanwhile, a finance report revealed Hinchingbrooke continued to run an unplanned deficit in December, meaning Circle will have to pay it £3.7m so it can balance its books at the end of the financial year.

This means the company will be forced to use nearly three quarters of the £5m it set aside to pay for deficits in Hinchingbrooke’s budget over its 10-year contract – in the first year of the contract alone.