Compass ketchup song and dance adds to NHS's woes

NHS managers have enough to worry about these days, without a £2.3m lawsuit over out-of-date sauce...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
With hospital budgets under increasing pressure, the last thing they need is to be shelling out millions in compensation to their private sector suppliers. But that's the potential disaster scenario facing the Mid Essex Trust, which runs two hospitals in the county: catering firm Compass is apparently so annoyed by the hefty fines it's been given for various indiscretions - like using a spoon to hold a fire door open - that it's now suing the Trust for £2.3m. That's a lot of middle management salaries...

According to the Telegraph, the Trust came down pretty hard on Compass subsidiary Medirest for several alleged food-related gaffes - which included supplying chocolate mousse and tomato ketchup sachets that were out of date, as well as the spoon incident.

Anyone who's eaten in a hospital lately is unlikely to have much sympathy; the food is bad enough, without more corners being cut. But Compass argues that the fines it received - £23k for the door, £46k for the ketchup, and £85k for the mousse, plus £20k for a toaster that contained crumbs and £95k for a fridge that wasn't showing the right temperature - were out of all proportion to the scale of their misdemeanours. Particularly since they acted quickly to sort things out (possibly by scraping the sauce off a nurse's burger and sticking it back in the packet). And since none of these incidents is up there with the great corporate cock-ups - a dodgy mousse is hardly Deepwater Horizon - the £700k it has had to shell out in fines does seem a bit steep.

Then again, hospitals need to (be seen to) take this kind of thing seriously. And in these austere times, perhaps the Trust needed the budgetary boost. The Coalition is planning to scrap all 152 primary care trusts, plus the 10 strategic health authorities - potentially affecting more than 60,000 managers (it emerged today that Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has offered the biggest earners some generous-sounding packages to leave of their own accord), as part of its plan to chop out costs and improve efficiency across the NHS.

So a £2.3m penalty - or an expensive legal battle - would be just what the doctor didn't order. Let's hope that the managers who are still there can sit down with Compass and hammer this out before it gets anywhere near a courtroom.

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