BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07: A patient is taken to the operating theatre in the recently opened Birmingham Queen Elizabeth Hospital on February 7, 2011 in Birmingham, England. The new Queen Elizabeth Hospital accommodates 1,213 beds and 30 operating theatres. The super hospital has a 100-bed intensive care unit - the largest in Europe - and the largest single floor critical care unit in the world. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A plan that would have taken the NHS into uncharted territory by inviting external bids to run a deficit-ridden hospital has been put on hold, ensuring that no contest will be launched until after the general election.

Peterborough and Stamford NHS Foundation Trust agreed last year to seek a “business partner”, from either the NHS or the private sector, to generate more revenue from the hospital, which receives a £40m annual subsidy from the health department.

The move raised the prospect of the hospital, which spends £42m a year simply on servicing its debts under the private finance initiative, becoming the first semi-autonomous foundation trust to hand over its management to a private company.

However, in a statement on Friday, the health services regulator Monitor said it had agreed to “a short delay” in the search for a partner, “to enable Cambridgeshire and Peterborough clinical commissioning group to develop a strategic plan for the local health economy”.

The trust must “take all possible steps” to firm up its plans to find a partner from either the NHS or independent sector, “so that the tender goes ahead after March 31 2015”, said Monitor.

The regulator blamed a “lack of clarity” about long-term commissioning plans, which had threatened to stall the tender. Potential bidders had made clear “they would demand a premium on their costs to cover the risk”, it said.

Insiders acknowledged that uncertainty caused by a potential change of government next May may have contributed to bidders’ nervousness.

The delay is the latest in a series of politically sensitive decisions about whether to deepen private sector involvement in the NHS that have been avoided or delayed in advance of next year’s election.

Earlier this year, two hospitals that had considered partnering with the private sector, George Eliot in Nuneaton and Weston in Somerset, both decided to work with neighbouring NHS hospitals instead.

David Hill, enforcement director for Monitor, said the regulator was “disappointed” by the tender delay. “The public wants NHS resources spent on treating patients – not on propping up the costs of underused buildings,” he added.

Monitor said the trust must continue to deliver efficiency savings to help reduce the deficit. It saved £13m in 2013-14 and plans to save a similar amount this year.

However, Michelle Tempest, partner at Candesic, a healthcare consultancy, said the tender delay smacked of political interference.

She said: “The big question remains: are politicians running scared from any hospital tendering now the general election is on the horizon? I hope not, as all that should matter is how to improve patient care.”

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