THE SHOCK announcement that Royal Bournemouth Hospital Trust's chief executive Tony Spotswood will NOT be applying for the position of interim joint chief of the merged hospitals means that Poole Hospital CEO Debbie Fleming is now almost certain to get the job.

Despite the controversy surrounding the proposed merger, Ms Fleming is understood to have been keen to run the merged hospitals. It is understood by the Bournemouth Echo that the position was 'ring-fenced' to either her or Mr Spotswood. However, she will have to face an interview process next week and make a case to become interim CEO.

The Echo understands she is 'committed to going for the job' because she wants to ensure that all the proposed changes are managed well and 'in the interests of patients'.

Debbie Fleming has been CEO at Poole since she was appointed from NHS England in 2014, where she was area director for Wessex. She started her career in management at the hospital, becoming general director for medicine during the 1990s before holding a variety of other senior posts within the NHS including more than a decade in chief executive roles at Bournemouth and Poole and Hampshire primary care trusts.

Mr Spotswood's decision to step down came as a surprise to governors at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital Trust. One governor admitted: "Tony’s decision will have big implications for the the hospital and new challenges for us as governors."

The governor praised the hospital's current leadership team but said: "We will probably have to adapt to a new CEO, but I am confident we are a good team and will continue to ensure the best for patients and staff."

There is also the question of any possible payout to Mr Spotswood.

Governors will be keen to ensure that they avoid the kind of controversy that cloaked the hospital three years ago, when medical director Basil Fozard retired with a £1.9 million NHS pension. He was then re-appointed to the same role on a bumper £152,000 salary - £20,000 more than he was being paid previously.

Mr Spotswood was attacked over the decision which was buried on page 159 of the hospital's annual report - just days before the then health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced the loophole allowing the trick would be closed.

It is understood Mr Spotswood, who is the longest-serving CEO of a hospital trust in the UK, will leave his job by the end of the year.