NHS employees working at hospitals run by the operator Circle are to be offered shares in the company for the first time as part of moves to change its governance structure.

Circle Holdings, the publicly-traded company that owns a majority stake in the hospital operator, has announced it is to acquire the rest of the company. This is currently in the hands of Circle Partnership, which is owned by employees and holds a 49.9 per cent stake in the operator.

As part of the process, Circle employees and NHS staff are both being offered shares in the company for free, providing they meet certain performance criteria.

The fact that no proportion of Circle is to be reserved for employee ownership is likely to be regarded as a move away from what the company has described as its “innovative ‘John-Lewis’ style mutual model”.

HSJ understands that the criteria for free shares, yet to be agreed, will vary by team and will be arranged as part of individual staff members’ appraisals.

Circle employees have previously had access to shares in the partnership through incentives, however they were not able to sell them.

A body called the Partnership Benefit Trust will be created once the restructure goes ahead in order to give Circle staff and NHS partners access to tradeable shares in Circle Holdings PLC. Employees who are given shares will not be able to sell them before the end of an 18-month period.

The proposals will need to be voted on by the members of the Circle Partnership. The acquisition is expected to be complete in the first few months of 2014, according to a source close to the process.

The company, which provides services in five locations - including the management franchise for Hinchingbrooke Health Care Trust in Cambridgeshire, has also announced it intends to raise £25m in order to explore growth opportunities in both public and private health markets.

Steve Melton, Circle chief executive, said: “Circle is unique in being co-owned and run by the doctors, nurses, porters and cleaners who work in our hospitals.

“Over the last year, they have worked tirelessly to ensure our hospitals remain among the safest and most highly recommended in the country.

“That’s why I’m delighted we are able to recognise this hard work and dedication today by bringing all of our partners into our share scheme for the very first time.”