The chief executive of a hospital involved in a major fire has written to health secretary Frank Dobson protesting about orders that stop trusts taking out commercial insurance.

Jane Herbert, chief executive of South Manchester University Hospitals trust, said the NHS risk-pooling scheme, which is replacing commercial insurance, could cause 'serious delays' for trusts making a claim.

The government argues that the new scheme, run by the NHS Litigation Authority, will save£45m a year in cover for property, public liability and travel. But buildings and contents will only be covered 'up to a defined ceiling' of£250,000-£1m, depending on the size of the trust.

Larger claims will have to go to an NHS Executive regional office that will 'agree future service plans and funding requirements rather than automatically re-creating the asset'.

Ms Herbert said this system could have delayed repairs at Manchester's Wythenshawe Hospital, where four operating theatres were damaged by a fire last August.

The fire has caused£1.15m of damage to date, with further costs estimated at several hundreds of thousands of pounds. Police believe the fire was arson but no-one has been charged.

A trust spokesperson said: 'The loss adjusters came in very quickly, which meant we were able to act fast and to keep staff morale up.

'The fire was in August, we had two theatres back by the end of November and the final two in February.

Ms Herbert has offered to meet Department of Health officials to talk about the trust's experience of making a major claim.

'We would be concerned if the new insurance scheme would result in delays and uncertainty. If there is major damage there is even more pressure to get back to normal - you can't do without an operating theatre for long,' the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers said Ms Herbert's warnings echoed concerns it had raised about the new scheme.

'Insurance companies did provide a specialist service to

hospitals. We have the experience and the organisation to handle claims and we believe we provided a good service.'