STRUCTURE: The Dorset foundation trusts waiting for a decision on their merger plans have agreed to stop meetings about the merger and are developing alternative plans, HSJ has learned.

Senior managers and clinicians from Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals and Poole Hospital signed “hold separate” undertakings in March at the request of the Competition Commission.

These committed the organisations to have an independent observer present at all meetings between them to ensure they did not take action that would be “irreversible” in the event the commission blocked the merger.

However, the undertakings were breached during a meeting between the proposed executive board and shadow clinical directorates to discuss savings plans in July.

A papers to Royal Bournemouth’s September meeting said the commission had been seeking to impose “more restrictive undertakings” following the meeting.

The report from chief executive Tony Spotswood said: “This has resulted in the Competition Commission asking that no further work is done on integration until they specify or their assessment process comes to a conclusion. This effectively prohibits the work of the joint programme board and the proposed board.”

The commission has until 21 October to make a decision but in July it announced it was minded to block the merger unless the trusts could convince them the benefits of the merger outweighed the loss of competition.

Mr Spotswood added: “In light of the emerging findings and the ongoing dialogue with the Competition Commission, it is clearly necessary for both trusts to consider alternative plans should the merger be blocked.”

The paper was also critical of a Competition Commission public listening event held on 5 September. It said staff and governors had been discouraged from attending, meaning attendance was likely to be poor, and complained the information provided to public at the event focused too much on loss of competition and not enough on the potential benefits.

“The event will provide an opportunity for the CC to be able to confirm that it has listened to local views although this is clearly not a scientific or comprehensive consultation process and it is difficult to gauge what if any impact it will have on the Competition Commission’s overall decision,” it said.

A spokesman for the commission said normal collaboration between the trusts had not been “forbidden” just any further work towards integration.