DORSET health chiefs say they welcome the latest probe into the merger between Poole and Bournemouth hospitals.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched the investigation. Its predecessor, the Competition Commission, ruled against a previous merger between the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals NHS Trust and Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

In 2013 the Competition Commission announced there was not enough evidence that the proposed merger between the trusts, at that time, would result in an overall benefit to patients.

The current merger proposal, however, has already been signed off by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, after the Independent Reconfiguration Panel – the NHS service change body– ruled in favour of the changes.

Under the merger, led by NHS Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group and planned to take place formally in July, Poole Hospital will lose its A&E department and become a hub for planned care with 14 operating theatres.

Meanwhile, a new emergency department and critical care unit will be built at Royal Bournemouth Hospital.

The shake-up, in particular the loss of Poole’s accident and emergency department, has not been universally-welcomed.

Campaign group Defend Dorset NHS argues that increased travel times to Bournemouth’s A&E from more isolated areas, in particular areas such as Purbeck, could put lives at risk.

Yesterday, Debbie Fleming, joint chief executive of both hospitals, said: “We welcome the CMA’s scrutiny of our proposals and look forward to working with them to go through our plans in detail.

“We are confident that they will recognise the very significant benefits that merger will bring about, and find the case to do so compelling.”

The CMA says that as a result of the 2013 refusal, the hospital trusts entered into a 10-year commitment not to merge without the prior CMA approval.

However, since that decision, the CMA says there has been “significant changes to policy within the NHS that have affected the role competition plays.”

A CMA statement said: “Competition between NHS hospitals is no longer used by the NHS to drive quality, with collaboration often viewed as a better way to meet increasing demands for care and deliver better value.

"This has been taken into account in recent hospital mergers reviewed by the CMA, including the merger between Aintree University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust, which was cleared in August 2019.

“The CMA’s assessment of the potential effects of this merger on NHS services in the east Dorset area will take these policy changes into account.

"During the investigation, the CMA will work closely with Bournemouth and Poole Hospital trusts, the NHS regulators and local commissioners to assess the role that competition plays in how the hospitals provide services and whether any loss of competition brought about by the merger could have a negative impact on patients.

“More broadly, the CMA is aware of longer-term NHS plans to exempt mergers between NHS hospitals from CMA review, which it fully supports.”