Nine-month figures show that the National Health Service is on track to achieve a surplus of £1.8 billion for the financial year 2007/8, a far cry from the shortfall of £547 million booked for the prior year.

According to the Department of Health, the surplus represents a mere 2.3% of the overall NHS budget, and it stressed that the money will remain within the NHS. “Delivering a surplus is a crucial part of our financial strategy and essential for creating the capacity to invest in future years,” explained David Flory, Director General for NHS Finance.

The vast majority of NHS trusts closed the quarter in balance, although 17 organisations are still forecasting a deficit at the year-end, compared to 25 in the second quarter. But in its third-quarter report, the DH stressed that these “financially challenged trusts” have been subject to a “rigorous” financial and operational review and that long-term solutions to maintain patient care whilst delivering value for money are currently being worked on.

The Service has also managed to further shave expectations for gross deficit during for the year, which is now forecast to be £143 million instead of £204 million, marking a massive reduction from the £917 million reported at the end of 2006/7.

“Today's report not only shows that the NHS now has a strong and sustainable financial position, but also - importantly - it shows that we remain on course to deliver against our key pledges,” commented David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the NHS.

The achievements certainly seem to go beyond the ‘mere’ financial, with the third NHS quarterly report also showing progress in patient care, such as: 98% of patients being offered a GP appointment within two working days; continued progress in the fight against healthcare associated infections, with an 18% drop in MRSA bloodstream infections and 21% decrease in C. Difficile figures; an increase in the number of patients waiting 18 weeks or less from referral to treatment; and meeting the target of reducing mortality from cardiovascular diseases five years early.

Financial security
Commenting on the report, Nigel Edwards, policy director of the NHS Confederation, said: “Turning finances around is what NHS organisations have been told to do by the Department of Health and that this should be the norm across the service,” and he went on to say that “acting from a secure financial base allows NHS organisations to plan effectively for the long term so that resources can be used most effectively while ensuring that they can deal with contingencies such as a major flu pandemic."

But others are concerned that the surplus has come at a price of cutbacks in patient care and the quality of service provision. As Michael Summers, of the Patients’ Association, told TimesOnline: “When wards are closing and hospitals are cutting back on cleaning and nursing staff up and down the country, it is quite astonishing that they are generating such a huge surplus.”