So, health minister John Hutton has suddenly realised what construction knew months ago: it is already too late to deliver his new hospitals before the next election. His offer to subsidise bids, truncate tender lists and hire more Whitehall project managers has, therefore, the hallmarks of political panic (pages 28-29). The scramble to crank up the PFI is also apparent in other departments, such as education. And after the dismal failure of the PFI social housing pathfinders, officials are imploring contractors, councils and housing associations to suggest a way forward. These moves to unshackle the PFI are welcome, if a little late in coming. But contractors will be mistrustful, too. Last month, Tony Blair cut a backroom deal with the unions to allow ancillary workers at PFI hospitals to remain in the public sector. Having just clipped the PFI's wings, it is now demanding it fly faster: an episode worthy of Lewis Carroll.

The PFI cannot survive if it is managed through a series of short-term political fixes. Ministers must decide what role they want the private sector to play in the delivery of public services and organise the system accordingly. If off-balance sheet PFI hospitals are good value, then they must slap down the unions. If creeping privatisation is bad for democracy, as Unison says (page 34), then the PFI should cease. The muddle is compounded by some Treasury mandarins, who argue that the PFI should be extended. Only by giving contractors responsibility for a school's exam performance, they argue, can they produce demonstrable benefits. In return, though, companies would have to be able to hire and fire the head. Would ministers really slug it out with the teaching unions over this? Or, as with Unison, will they concoct a feeble "Third Way" compromise?

Despite this week's developments, the PFI is still in trouble. Policy-makers are in a philosophical fog, engulfing not just private finance but the function of business in British society. So, while construction firms are right to applaud moves to improve the initiative, they would be mad to over-extend themselves in any accelerated programme. Today's motto is: play it safe with the PFI.