The Government’s flagship ’40 hospitals’ project is set to face further delays, piling further pressure on Rishi Sunak over missed Tory pledges.
An industry insider told i the Government appears to have “abandoned hope” of making significant progress before the general election next year.
The fresh delays raise the prospect that a future Labour administration will have to decide whether to continue with the project, or to abandon it and draw up new plans for hospital construction and upgrades.
The pledge to build 40 new hospitals by 2030, originally promised by Boris Johnson in the 2019 Tory manifesto, has been beset by delays and claims that some of the ‘new’ sites are just extensions to existing healthcare centres.
i has been told the latest delay relates to the appointment of a building firm to serve as the ‘delivery manager’ – a construction industry term to describe the lead contractor responsible for the overall progress and completion of a major project.
Insiders on the project told i that this crucial appointment has been delayed twice, with firms recently being told a hiring process will not begin until the new year. They fear little progress will be made before the next election if it is held in October or November 2024.
One told i: “It feels like the Government has abandoned any hope of moving the project on any time soon. Hiring a delivery manager has been delayed, and it feels like all big projects have been put on ice.
“We have a full team ready to work on the project, but we keep being told of delays to the procurement. We can’t keep waiting for the Government to start forever.”
Another company told i: “There’s no way the process will be completed much before October next year, by which point we might be dealing with a new Government.”
The next general election must be held no later than 24 January 2025.
Labour is committed to continuing with the construction of dozens of new hospitals if it wins the election, but insiders say the party may need to review the way the project works. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: “The programme is already over-budget and behind schedule. Many are not ‘new’, others are not ‘hospitals’, and there aren’t 40 of them.
“If Rishi Sunak has now abandoned the Conservatives’ promise to build 40 new hospitals, then it is further proof there is no point of him or his government.” Labour is understood to be concerned about whether enough funding is available. A party source said: “It is about making it work, rather than ripping it up and starting again or allowing it to continue how it has. We’ve got to see what state it is in at that point.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it is “on track” with appointing the lead contractor. Ministers admitted in May that eight of the “new hospitals” they pledged to build by 2030 would be delayed into the next decade.
At the time, Health Secretary Stephen Barclay stressed that they were still committed to meeting the pledge, highlighting how the refurbishment of five hospitals in urgent need of repairs and the building of three mental health hospitals would be added to the programme and prioritised instead.
In July, the National Audit Office warned that the New Hospitals Programme (NHP), the project’s official title, is “highly dependent upon [delivery] partners outside the direct control of the NHP, including the construction industry”.
Despite this, little progress has been made on appointing a lead contractor nearly four years after Mr Johnson first made the pledge, with two firms currently acting as interims.
The appointments process was set to begin in September but insiders said this has now been delayed until the new year.
The Government faced a stern rebuke from spending watchdog the National Audit Office earlier this summer, as it was revealed at least eight hospitals were expected to be completed after the initial 2030 goal.
The report stated that under Mr Johnson, in “most of the schemes the issue of affordability had not yet been considered”. i reported in October that cheaper prefab construction would need to be used for parts of the scheme due to a potential budget shortfall under the Liz Truss government.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, warned in the report that progress had been slower than expected and that the Government had failed to achieve good value for money. He said that cost-cutting and inaccurate modelling could also mean new hospitals are too small.
The Department for Health and Social Care said: “We are on track with the appointment of a programme delivery partner, and remain committed to building 40 new hospitals in England by 2030, which is now expected to be backed by over £20 billion of investment.”
The ’40 hospitals’ plan: a timeline
30th September 2019: Boris Johnson pledges to build 40 “new” hospitals during the 2019 election campaign, pledging £13bn in spending, with £2.7bn in the first 5 years.
However, initial praise for Boris Johnson’s landmark 40 hospitals pledge quickly became sceptical scrutiny due to the definition of ‘new hospitals’ used by the Government.
1st December 2021: Johnson defends policy
Mr Johnson addressed criticism that the Government had exaggerated the number of completely new hospitals. He said at Prime Minister’s Questions: “You obviously don’t go around building on greenfield sites… you rebuild hospitals and that is what we have said for the last two-and-a-half years.”
4th July 2022: Only 5 completely new hospitals?
The BBC reported that only five of the 40 would actually be completely new hospitals. Laurie Rachet-Jacquet, an economic analyst at The Health Foundation, told the BBC: “They are not all ‘hospitals’ as most people would recognise them.”
21st December 2022: Costs mount
i reports on costs spiraling on the project, with the Government looking at cheaper ‘prefab’ construction as a method of lowering costs. Rising inflation and material shortages looked set to cause significant strain on Government budgets.
May 2023: Stephen Barclay admits some projects will be delayed
The Health Secretary said that eight of the 40 original schemes would be completed after 2030 to prioritise five other more urgent developments.
He insisted the Government would still meet its manifesto pledge by prioritising the five hospitals that are at risk of collapse and the building of three mental health hospitals by the deadline.
17th July 2023: NAO report published
The National Audit Office since raised concerns about the project, with questions over the funding of the policies and the ability for the Government to meet it’s 2030 deadline for the hospitals.
The NAO report said that at least eight “hospitals” would miss the 2030 target, and that while Mr Johnson’s government had said the plans were “fully funded”, funding for some hospitals had still not been confirmed.
The quango also said the Government’s prefab plan to save time and money was as yet “unproven”.