NHS trusts told to describe building work on existing sites as ‘new hospitals’

NHS trusts told to describe building work on existing sites as ‘new hospitals’
Leaked communications ‘playbook’ reveals government spin on new hospitals programme

Hospitals have been ordered to describe newly built units and major refurbishments of existing NHS buildings as “new hospitals” by the government.

A communications “playbook” for the government’s 48 new hospitals programme makes clear what ministers would define as a new hospital and also encourages NHS trusts to press home the pledge to build the new hospitals by the end of the decade.

The leaked document, obtained by the Health Service Journal, has emerged days after health secretary Sajid Javid faced criticism when he described a new cancer centre in Cumbria as a “new hospital.”

The Northern Centre for Cancer Care is on the existing Cumberland Infirmary site in Carlisle. Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals Foundation Trust, which runs the centre did not describe it as a hospital.

The leaked document will fuel questions over how many of the promised 48 projects being built by the government will actually be completely new hospitals versus smaller, cheaper, rebuilds and construction of smaller wings on existing sites.

The commitment to build 40 new hospitals was a key Conservative Party manifesto commitment in the 2019 general election.

The leaked document was sent to NHS trusts this month and titled the “New Hospital Programme Communications Playbook”.

According to the HSJ, it said: “The schemes named in the announcement are not all identical and vary across a number of factors. However, they do all satisfy the criteria we set of what a new hospital is and so must always be referred to as a new hospital.”

Under the definitions of a new hospital, it added this could include “a major new clinical building on an existing site or a new wing of an existing hospital, provided it contains a whole clinical service, such as maternity or children’s services; or a major refurbishment and alteration of all but building frame or main structure, delivering a significant extension to useful life which includes major or visible changes to the external structure”.

The guidance says where NHS trusts are promoting the programme they must mention the government’s manifesto commitment.

It even suggests a short description: “The government has committed to build 40 new hospitals by 2030, backed by an initial £3.7bn. Together with eight existing schemes, this will mean 48 hospitals by the end of the decade, the biggest hospital building programme in a generation.”

Nuffield Trust director of strategy Helen Buckingham told the HSJ: “Stretching the definition of a ‘new hospital’ to cover all these initiatives is not going to convince the average patient or taxpayer, and might lead to a poor reception for what are actually much needed local improvements.”

All press announcements must get “clearance from the DHSC” the document adds. NHS England is also insisting on signing off media responses to journalists by NHS trusts, a controversial policy introduced during the pandemic which has angered many trust press officers for damaging relationships with the media.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman told the HSJ: “We have committed to build 48 hospitals by 2030, backed by an initial £3.7bn. Each of the hospital building projects will be new hospitals delivering brand new, state-of-the-art facilities to ensure world-class provision of healthcare for NHS patients and staff by replacing outdated infrastructure.

“It is not uncommon for existing hospital sites to accommodate multiple hospitals and there are numerous hospitals which specialise in one area of care or are co-located — they are all nonetheless hospitals. In some cases, that will be whole new hospitals on a new site, and in other cases, a new hospital on an existing site with dedicated facilities for particular conditions, such as cancer.

“We have issued guidance to trusts in the programme to support communications around the plans for their schemes, which is standard practice.”