Thursday, September 14, 2006


Hospitals and GPs' surgeries could be hit by widespread disruption in the first national strike in the NHS for 18 years after workers who buy and distribute vital supplies voted to walk out. The proposed strike by workers in NHS Logistics could delay operations and treatment if hospitals run out of key supplies such as syringes, hand-cleansing gel, latex gloves, disposable bedpans and hand towels, according to Unison, the public service union. NHS Logistics handles 51,000 products, including vaccines, but not general drugs, and delivers supplies to hospitals.

The action will hit hospitals and GPs' surgeries across England in the first national action since midwives went on strike. The strike - which was backed by three to one in the ballot - is in protest at the Government's plans to outsource the logistics work to DHL, the parcels group, in one of the biggest privatisations of health service work. NHS Logistics, which has 1,400 employees, serves 600 hospitals in England and nearly 9,000 GPs' surgeries. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, said: "These are not troublemakers, not hardliners, but workers who care deeply about the NHS. "NHS Logistics is an award-winning service and it makes no sense to sell it off."

Unison will decide on Friday whether it will mount one lengthy strike or a series of one-day strikes. Its action could come before the Labour Party conference in two weeks' time. Nigel Edwards, the director of policy at the NHS Confederation, which represents more than 90 per cent of NHS organisations, said: "Many hospitals do not hold large volumes of the medical supplies provided by NHS Logistics. Therefore those trusts that use NHS Logistics - which is not all of them - will now be looking at contingency arrangements to ensure they have adequate medical supplies. "We hope that NHS Logistics will be working with individual trusts to make sure that contingency arrangements can be put in place so that patient care is not adversely affected. We would also hope that strike action does not place patient care in jeopardy."

Unison is taking the Government to court to seek a judicial review of the way the contract was awarded after its value was suddenly changed from 700 million pounds to 1.6 billion. A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "The NHS uses about 500,000 different products such as catering supplies, office equipment and medical supplies, but only around 51,000 of these products are provided by NHS Logistics. The majority of hospitals have their own local supply and delivery arrangements."

The announcement of the strike ballot came as health unions and medical associations began a joint campaign to fight the Government's reforms and further involvement of the private sector in the NHS. Stephen Campion, the general secretary of the Association of Hospital Consultants and Specialists, told a meeting of campaign leaders that the Government's relationships with the health unions was "one of the most divisive and fragmented relationships since those bad old days of the 1980s". Mr Prentis told the TUC's annual conference that despite Labour's large investment in the NHS since it came to power, this year it was "in crisis, threatened as never before".

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