Lancashire path lab plan a 'stab in the back' for coronavirus testing staff, claims union

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Pathology staff working at hospitals in Lancashire – some of whom are carrying out coronavirus testing – feel like they are being “stabbed in the back” by the resurrection of plans to centralise services on a single site.

That is according to the Unite union, which claims that NHS bosses are pressing ahead with proposals which emerged more than two years ago to create a so-called “super lab” in the county.

Lancaster was originally put forward as the preferred location for the facility, which would undertake all of Lancashire’s non-urgent, outpatient pathology testing – taking it away from the individual hospital sites where it is currently carried out.

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The revamp was expected to be completed by 2021, but last year it was announced that the project had been delayed until 2024, while it awaited government funding. As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed at the time, collaboration between existing laboratories - in Preston, Chorley, Blackpool, Lancaster, Burnley, Blackburn and Barrow - was expected to increase in the interim.

Plans to reconfigure Lancashire's pathology services date back over two yearsPlans to reconfigure Lancashire's pathology services date back over two years
Plans to reconfigure Lancashire's pathology services date back over two years | jpimedia

But Keith Hutson, regional officer for Unite, says that all the indications were that the single-site proposal had effectively been dropped in favour of more subtle local arrangements. However, he claims that the original plan has now been put back on the table at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.

The NHS body responsible for the pathology project has insisted that no changes will be made during the current crisis.

Mr Hutson said: “They’ve talked about how they are going to consult with people, but we’re in the middle of dealing with Covid – my reps and their members just aren’t in a position to do this.

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“They seem to think it’s sensible to do it when staff are off, either isolating or ill. People are working extra time to provide cover, while they’re running all these tests in hospital – we just think that it’s totally inappropriate and staff feel that they’re being stabbed in the back.”

Mr. Hutson told the LDRS that a separate plan had been put forward late last year to centralise some specialist services at existing hospital sites – histology at the Royal Preston and microbiology at the Royal Blackburn.

“Those tests take longer, so they don’t tend to work as urgently as haematology and chemistry, which would be [subject to a different proposal]. We were then told that everything was being put to one side anyway, because we’ve got Covid to deal with.”

Responding to the union’s claims, Mark Hindle, managing director for pathology collaboration across Lancashire and South Cumbria said:

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“There have been early-stage plans in development to bring together pathology services in Lancashire and South Cumbria.

“No laboratories will be closed during the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As plans continue to be developed they will take into account lessons learned from the coronavirus outbreak.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the pathology staff for their work on the delivery of Covid-19 testing services,” Mr. Hindle added.

The original centralisation proposal for a site at Lancaster University was the local manifestation of an England-wide NHS policy which ordered the creation of a series of pathology networks across the country. These are set to work on a so-called “hub and spoke” model, with a centralised facility for non-urgent outpatient tests and more local arrangements for urgently-needed results or those for patients already in hospital.

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In Lancashire, this would involve the maintenance of existing path labs at seven hospital sites in the region – Blackpool Victoria, Royal Blackburn Hospital, Burnley General, Chorley and South Ribble Hospital, Furness General, the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and the Royal Preston Hospital.

It was estimated that the centralisation plan could save £11m per year, but would require £31m in funding to establish.

Unite had objected to the proposal over concerns about the distance which non-urgent samples would have to be transported across Lancashire.

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