Published: 08/12/2005 Volume 115 No. 5985 Page 10
Forget harsh talk of 'hit squads' hitting England's financially embattled hospitals this side of Christmas. That was the name Whitehall officials dreamed up in late summer when they realised they might have a problem.
But that was then. Now you must try thinking of them more kindly as 'turnaround teams'. One an NHS manager on secondment, another perhaps an official from the Department of Health, quite possibly accompanied by an accountant from a big firm like KPMG (on a handsome day rate), ready to provide advice.
'It is not like an Ofsted team tearing a school to bits, It is going to be much less aggressive; they're helpful folk, helping you to sort things out, ' one Whitehall source explained after the Telegraph, aping the Daily Mail, had gone so ballistic over school failures it left little room to attack the NHS.
Only do not expect any of them to dress up as Santa. Helpful or no, this is going to be a tricky patch. We can expect to hear the same stern tone which health secretary Patricia Hewitt adopted when MPs discussed NHS finances last month.
Only a small percentage of acute and primary care trusts are in serious trouble, the problem is highly localised and was worse under the Tories, she keeps saying.
Remember, she has to impress chancellor Gordon Brown that she has the situation under control.
Whether voters see it that way, in a week when even Mr Brown had to admit his economic growth predictions are wrong, is debatable.
Andrew Lansley, the Tory health spokesman, blames growing 'bureaucracy' for the ballooning deficits. But the more awkward fact is that former health secretary Alan Milburn's new contracts for doctors and consultants have cost£400m more than expected.
Of course, opposition parties are in favour of transparency and financial discipline. Ms Hewitt can argue she is providing both, though the DoH officially announced the projected£623m net overspend (it will come down) only after The Guardian's John Carvel had winkled out the figures via a Freedom of Information application.
But it is not all gloom. For those who study these things there is news that Professor Paul Corrigan, a key adviser at the DoH in the Milburn reform era who is also married to Hilary Armstrong, Labour's chief whip, is returning to Whitehall as the No 10 health specialist.
He will help put together the primary/community care white paper, publication of which is slipping further. No longer preChristmas, it is now no longer New Year, but late January. When it comes it is now expected to bring comfort to all those MPs, many from the Tory shires, who have been campaigning to save some 80 at-risk community hospitals.
During that Commons debate on NHS finance, members of Community Hospitals Acting Nationally Together (CHANT) were both angry and alarmed. I rang Julian Lewis (Conservative, New Forest East) to discover their tactics.
In the New Forest area five such hospitals have been earmarked for whole or partial closure:
Fordingbridge, Milford, Hythe, Romsey and Fenwick. And this amid accusations of dodgy surveys and claims in the local paper that a senior manager was heard saying 'where's the nearest bin' when confronted with a petition, the MP tells me.
The five have 119 beds between them (or 106, depending on who's counting) and the cross-party local coalition wants to find specialist units - eg orthopaedics or stroke - that will help keep them all open.
This includes 'step down' beds for care below general hospital level and 'places where people can go to spend their final days, ' says Mr Lewis.
Those he dismisses as 'local health bureaucrats, not local representatives' want to shuffle people off into more expensive beds at the big teaching hospital in Southampton. 'It is a return to the sort of dogma which led to the closure of mental hospitals and care in the community, ' explains the MP, who colleagues assume did not vote for David Cameron.
'Stick together. do not let them play you off against each other, ' is his advice. New Forest's battle is not over. But I am told the January white paper will give a new lease of life to community hospitals. 'We do listen, you know, ' says Deep Throat. .
Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.