HOSPITALS across the Cotswolds have taken "one step closer to privatisation" according to worried campaigners who say new changes threaten the future of the facilities.

From October, the running of Cirencester, Fairford, Bourton-on-the-Water and Moreton-in-Marsh community hospitals will be taken over by a community organisation.

Patients will still be able to access NHS-funded care at the hospitals, the facilities will be run by Gloucestershire Care Services Community Interest Company (CIC), a social enterprise comprising representatives from the local communities.

But while supporters of the four hospitals cautiously welcomed the changes, one campaigner said he believed the move would end up with the hospitals being privatised.

Chris Moore, helped form Stroud Against Cuts to campaign against the changes and has led protests at Stroud Hospital.

"This is back door privatisation," he told the Standard.

"Everybody who does not want to see their hospital transferred into private ownership needs to gear themselves up, stand up and be counted. Cotswold locals need to bang their drum about this decision which has been made in secret and in stealth."

Mr Moore said the five-year contract would leave the NHS vulnerable to a commercial takeover in 2016 when the contract is re-tendered.

Nicki Millin, deputy director for performance and planning at NHS Gloucestershire, confirmed the situation would be reviewed in five years with a decision taken based on needs and changing clinical practice.

The community hospitals will remain part of the NHS estate and any profit will be reinvested into local care.

Ingrid Barker, chairman of CIC, said the move would give hospitals greater flexibility to meet the needs of patients while Jan Stubbings, chief executive of NHS Gloucestershire, said it wouuld give "service users a stronger say on how services are run for the benefit of local communities".

Cotswold MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said he expected teething problems with the new arrangement but he was confident it would deliver better health services for Cotswold residents in the long term.

Sheila Rees, chairman of the League of Friends of Cirencester Hospital, said the league would carefully monitor the new arrangement to ensure it did not lead towards privatisation but added it was also the league’s responsibility to continue offering its full support.

However Martin Harwood of Fairford League of Friends said the move had great potential.

"This is an excellent idea in principle as long as it is properly financed," he added. "The closer you get to a grassroots running of a hospital, the better."