Ministers have ruled out a planned merger between Ashworth Special Hospital and a Salford trust, in a Uturn which has been condemned as 'spineless'.

The official explanation for the move is that Ashworth's board and management team are already fully stretched by a 'formidable agenda' posed by the highly critical Fallon inquiry, recent recommendations on hospital security and the national service framework for mental health.

'The management team should devote their time and energies to these significant issues', said junior health minister Lord Hunt, asking North West regional office to put forward 'a range of possible options for the future'.

But well-informed sources said Ashworth's financial crisis, as well as opposition from consultants at Mental Health Services of Salford (MHSS) trust, could have played a part in killing off the merger plan, which was due to go to consultation next month.

The 40-mile distance between the Merseyside special hospital and Salford has also been cited as a factor.

Ashworth is carrying a deficit of£4.6m; MHSS has just balanced its books after securing additional funding from commissioning bodies, but earlier this year was£800,000 in the red.

Former chief executive of the High Security Psychiatric Services Commissioning Board Ray Rowden said ministers' decision on Ashworth was 'spineless'.

'The other two special hospitals, Rampton and Broadmoor, are well on the way to mergers with trusts, but the one that has always been the problem child is left once again outside the mainstream of the NHS framework. Full integration . . . is the only way forward.'

By 'relaxing the change agenda' at Ashworth, added Professor Rowden, the government was also 'sending out all the wrong signals' to Rampton and Broadmoor.

But he said he was not surprised by the collapse of the merger plan: 'The consultant body in Salford saw the mergers as bringing a load of. . . problems into their lap.'

Ashworth chief executive Lezli Boswell said the hospital was 'looking forward' to 'seeking links with other organisations throughout the NHS'.

Asked if he was disappointed or relieved by the minister's decision, MHSS chief executive Robert Lee said: 'A lot of work has gone into this, so there is disappointment.'

He admitted that consultants had been 'concerned' about the merger, but denied there had been opposition.