STRUCTURE: The prime minister and health secretary have been asked to intervene in a row over whether a hospital should continue to employ NHS staff.

The dispute concerns the Chipping Norton War Memorial Hospital, which lies in prime minister David Cameron’s Witney constituency. The hospital, which moved onto a new site in March, is managed by the Order of St John charity, which runs an intermediate care unit on the same site.

Nurses at the hospital are currently employed by Oxford Health Foundation Trust, although a review is due to take place in 2014, after which NHS nurses could be replaced by Order of St John staff.

However, Oxfordshire PCT has proposed that, until 2014, any new hospital staff would be employed by the charity, rather than the NHS.

Councillors fear this would enable the charity to cut costs and share staff between the intermediate care unit and the hospital.

In a letter addressed to health secretary Andrew Lansley and copied to Mr Cameron, the chair of Oxfordshire County Council’s overview and scrutiny committee said the PCT had “on more than one occasion” given an undertaking that staff would continue to be NHS-employed until 2014.

He added: “There have been no satisfactory explanations of why those undertakings have been broken.”

It follows a letter from NHS South Central chairman Geoffrey Harris to Mr Cameron in August, saying the PCT’s decision “highlights a change in status of the hospital and a diminution of the range and quality of care provided there”.

Sonia Mills, chief executive of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire primary care trust cluster, said in her September report to the board that the proposal was “in the context of needing to ensure the hospital is functioning and achieving cost effectiveness”.

Downgrading the hospital was “contrary to all commissioner intentions”, she said. Her new plan will be discussed by councillors in November.

An Order of St John spokesman pledged to “work with health and local authority partners in handling the matter in the most appropriate way”.