NHS accused of bringing back controversial hospital laboratory merger plan amid coronavirus crisis

NHS bosses in Lancashire have been accused of trying to sneak through a plan to merge medical test labs in four hospitals wile staff are battling coronavirus.

By Tim Gavell
Wednesday, 13th May 2020, 7:00 am

The Unite union has said that the Lancashire and South Cumbria Central Laboratories Partnership is aiming to either merge labs at Blackpool, Preston, Lancaster and Blackburn into one "super lab" or shrink the services at some hospitals and move them to others.

The union says that the super lab plan had already been discounted as it would be away from the hospitals that need its services and would mean delays in testing samples which would have a detrimental impact on the estimated 500,000 people it would serve.

They added that if for example microbiology or histology labs at Blackpool Vic were diminished and moved to Preston, Lancaster or Blackburn, then as well as delays for patients, the hospital would find it hard to attract staff in the future.

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A typical hospital laboratory where tests for coronavirus take place among other important functitons

They say it would also mean job cuts and they believe it is simply a first step in the privatisation of an important NHS funciton.

Unite, which has 100,000 members in the health service, accused NHS bosses of using the coronavirus emergency to push through this already rejected merger plan ‘under the radar’ when other similar collaborations, such as at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, have postponed all further plans until the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

Unite said the plans were ‘a stab in the back’ for the biomedical scientists currently working at full stretch to process lab samples, including those for Covid-19, who have not got the time to examine the plan.

Merger plans for a super lab at Lancaster, covering the areas of five NHS trusts, were rejected last year as it would make the service too remote from local GPs and hospitals, and increase processing times from the current 24-to-48 hours.

Blackpool Victoria Hospital

In a letter to the partnership, Unite regional officer Keith Hutson said: “Unite finds it totally unacceptable that during the Covid 19 crisis you have seized upon this opportunity to force through merger plans and exclude the participation of Unite, the main representative of laboratory workers for this project.

“Unite calls upon this project to cease until the Covid-19 crisis has ended. I can say that apart from the despicable manner the trusts have chosen to progress this matter, be aware that when it is appropriate Unite, if necessary, will move to immediately ballot its members for industrial action.”

Keith Hutson added: “NHS bosses are using the pandemic to reintroduce this flawed plan under the radar which will increase the times for processing samples. Our members who have given their all during this crisis feel the deliberate lack of consultation is a stab in the back.

"Without doubt it would mean job cuts. We can only think that this has come up again as a means of making the service cheaper ready to sell it off to the private sector.

Coronavirus testing

“We are going to involve the region’s MPs in this campaign, including The Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, MP for Chorley, as, in the long-term, we fear that any super lab could be ripe for being sold off to a profit-hungry healthcare company.

“If one thing has become clear during the last two months, it is that the British public respect and deeply value the NHS and its staff - and don’t want to see it being salami-sliced and privatised.”

Lancashire and South Cumbria Central Laboratories Partnership said that pathology laboratory consolidation across the whole of England had been national NHS policy for several years, and the supposedly ‘under the radar’ plans for this region had been in the public domain since 2018.

Mark Hindle, managing director for the Pathology Collaboration across Lancashire and South Cumbria said: “There have been early-stage plans in development to bring together pathology services in Lancashire South Cumbria.

Royal Preston Hospital

“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.”