• CMA assessing merger plans for The Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals FT and Poole Hospital FT
  • Marks next step towards long-sought merger, previously rebuffed by regulator in 2013
  • CMA says “competition between NHS hospitals no longer used to drive quality”
  • News welcomed by FTs’ joint chief executive Debbie Fleming

Two Dorset foundation trusts have welcomed the launch of the latest regulatory investigation into their proposed merger, which was infamously blocked seven years ago.

The Competition and Markets Authority announced late last week it is assessing the merger proposals for The Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals Foundation Trust and Poole Hospital FT. 

It is the latest development in a saga which previously saw a merger proposal blocked by the CMA’s predecessor — the Competition Commission — in 2013. The trusts were required to commit to not merging for 10 years without approval from the CMA. It became a notorious example of the problems competition rules were causing for NHS structural change.

At the time, the commission argued the merger would lead to reduced competition, which would not have been outweighed by other benefits.

However, merger plans resurfaced three years later, prompted by proposals to reconfigure acute services across the two hospitals, including the controversial downgrade of Poole’s accident and emergency department.

Meanwhile, the CMA has substantially shifted its position on NHS competition in recent years. It said in a statement last week: “Since the Competition Commission’s decision, there have been significant changes to policy within the NHS that have affected the role that competition plays.

“Competition between NHS hospitals is no longer used by the NHS to drive quality, with collaboration often viewed as a better way to meet increasing demands for care and deliver better value.”

The CMA added it will take the policy changes into account when assessing whether any potential loss of competition caused by the merger would have a negative impact on patients.

Joint chief executive of the two FTs Debbie Fleming said: “We welcome the CMA’s scrutiny of our proposals and look forward to working with them to go through our plans in detail.

“We are confident that they will recognise the very significant benefits that [the] merger will bring about and find the case to do so compelling.”

Last summer Ms Fleming said she hoped the merger could be completed in 2020.

The merger will help move Dorset’s planned acute services reconfiguration along, although local health chiefs previously said it was not essential for those changes.

Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group announced proposals to split emergency and elective services between the two hospitals in 2015, as part of plans to reduce waiting times and provide a more efficient service. The plans would see a new critical care unit and emergency department built at Royal Bournemouth Hospital, while Poole would lose its A&E and become a hub for planned care with 14 operating theatres.

The proposals were signed off by Matt Hancock in January, after a referral from local councillors.

The CMA is an independent body that investigates proposed mergers between organisations to make sure they do not reduce competition that improves the quality of services.