A debt-ridden NHS hospital is to become the first in the UK to be privately managed after the only public bidders to run the operation pulled out.
Under a new government scheme introduced this year private managers can bid to replace NHS bosses at failing hospitals who will be sacked without a pay-off.
This means an entirely new team from a single private company will take over management of struggling hospitals and primary care trusts.
Hinchingbrooke Hospital, in Huntingdon, Cambs., will be privately run after the Cambridge and Peterborough NHS Trust pulled out of the multi-million pound bidding process
This leaves three private companies, Serco, Ramsay Health Care and Circle Health, bidding to manage the hospital.
Despite an annual £96m turnover Hinchingbrooke is £40m in debt and was rescued after public pressure from major cuts and threats of closure in 2006.
Experts believe around 20 hospitals which are falling short of minimum standards on quality, safety or finances across the country will follow Hinchingbrooke’s lead in the next 12 months.
Union bosses and local health campaigners fear private managers will put profits before patients and plan a protest march on Saturday to oppose the takeover.
Tom Woodcock, of Cambridgeshire Against Cuts, said: ”The idea there is no backer from the NHS is just nonsense, as an organisation they could easily do it.
”The three companies bidding for it are multi-national health firms with dubious records who will put profit in front of health care.
”It’s a dangerous idea as the shareholder will be above patient care. The only way you can make a profit is to cut something, to lower the standard of delivery or make staff work extra hours.
”We are trying to reinstate the NHS as a national health service and not a patchwork of providers.”
Steve Sweeney, secretary of Huntingdon and St Neots trades council, is part of the campaign to keep Hinchingbrooke public and one of the protest’s organisers.
He said: ”When these companies get their hands on public money, they end up taking millions in profits but not delivering proper treatment to patients.
”Workers at the hospital are absolutely against privatisation, but many are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.”
The health service reforms were part of a wave of public-sector changes imposed by Gordon Brown during the previous Parliament.
The regulations give the NHS powers to intervene more quickly where hospitals are underperforming.
Ministers can remove NHS trust chief executives or chairmen without having to pay them a generous severance package.
Private operators will decide what services are provided, how many staff are employed, what areas are contracted out and, in time, what conditions and pay rates operate.
But the hospital will remain owned by the NHS and all staff employed by the NHS.
Bidders Serco are known for running Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, Docklands Light Railway and entire local education authorities in Bradford, Walsall and Stoke.
Rivals Ramsay Health Care is Australia’s biggest private healthcare company founded by one of Australia’s richest men Paul Ramsay, with a £320m fortune.
The third bidder is Circle Health which is run on the John Lewis-style partnership model but run by banker Ali Parsa, formerly of Credit Suisse, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs banker.
The British Medical Association passed a motion during a conference last week after the last remaining NHS trust pulled out of the bidding process.
Doctors raised ”concerns” that only private firms remained in the franchise process.
The organisation promised to monitor funding arrangements given to the successful bidder and ensure patient care is not compromised.
A spokesman for East of England NHS said: ”Clinicians have been central to agreeing the way forward for Hinchingbrooke throughout the process and will continue to be so.
”We welcome the scrutiny of the BMA as we are confident the process has been open and transparent, open to all bidders both NHS and independent, and has in no way seen preferential treatment to the private sector.”
Hinchingbrooke serves a local population of more than 161,000 people and employs up to 2,000 health workers.
In 2007/8 more than 2,500 babies were born at the hospital and its accident and emergency department treated more than 33,000 people.
It treated 157,000 patients in total that year.