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HIT THE BRAKES: NHS bosses row back on ‘divorce’ threat

HIT THE BRAKES: NHS bosses row back on ‘divorce’ threat

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Hospital bosses have agreed to hit the brakes on ‘divorce’ proceedings to overhaul social care provision in Northumberland.

For the last decade, services in the county have been run under a partnership deal between Northumberland County Council (NCC) and Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust (NHFT).

Following negotiations to extend the arrangement, NHS chiefs reportedly felt they “didn’t have any choice” other than to walk away from talks after hitting stumbling blocks over issues with governance and future priorities.

However, in a late U-turn, less than two months before the current agreement is due to end on September 30, they have suggested they are prepared to return to the table.

“Our view is that, if it is possible, we should take the opportunity to see whether the issues and concerns identified by both parties can be addressed, by reshaping the partnership, and thus avoiding significant potential disruption for citizens and staff, and financial risk for NCC,” said Alan Richardson, chairman of NHFT, in a letter to county councillors.

“With this in mind, the Trust is willing to pause on the withdrawal of the partnership, to give both parties time to explore whether there is a way of working together to redraw what the future looks like and rebalancing the expectations from both partners regarding governance, management and oversight.”

The current partnership, signed in 2011, saw the day-to-day running of most aspects of adult social care, including care management, community rehabilitation and specialist learning disability services, transferred to NHFT.

According to a report by NCC, a full review of the arrangement slated to start in April 2020 ‘proved challenging’, partly because of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but also because of ‘significant differences’ over future plans revealed during talks.

About 600 staff are thought to be affected by the stand-off, most of which will be expected to transfer from the trust to the council, should the existing agreement end in September.

County bosses are believed to be pushing for the situation to be resolved either way within a week and are open to restarting talks.

But the breakdown has left many confused following years of each side praising the partnership.

Nick Oliver, who was previously a member of the council’s ruling cabinet during part of the negotiations, told the local authority’s Health and Wellbeing Overview and Scrutiny Committee: “It seems like we’re going through a divorce – where both sides are saying it’s not them that wants to get divorced.

“This area is the highest spending council area, something like £130m a year, it impacts upon thousands of people, and I think we’re worried that the information we’re getting is conflicting.

“This has been a partnership that has been held up for many many years as being some world class, but it’s collapsing and we’re not getting a clear explanation as to why.”

While the original agreement, in 2011, included provision for reviews, these were ‘repeatedly deferred’ due to uncertainties over proposed NHS reforms until 2020.

NCC’s subsequent proposals for managing patients with long-term conditions, as well as other changes, would have needed changes to existing terms which, the council claims, NHFT “did not feel able to support”.

Cath McEvoy-Carr, the county council’s executive director of adult social care and children’s services, said: “The council did not set out to bring about the dissolution of the partnership.

“We remain committed to providing integrated services with a wide range of partners, and we will continue to work closely with Northumbria Healthcare Trust as we do with other partner organisations.

“Our priority is and has always been caring for our residents and the staff that deliver these vital services, which the council has a statutory role to deliver.”

Marion Dickson, executive director for nursing, midwifery and allied health professionals at NHFT, said: “There are ongoing discussions with Northumberland County Council regarding the future of the partnership agreement and we believe there are, potentially, alternative options to consider that could minimise disruption, risk and cost.

“Our focus will always be guided by what is right for the citizens we serve and our staff.

“Regardless of the council’s decision, we value our relationship and will continue to work with them.”


Words: James Harrison, Local Democracy Reporter


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