The result of an open tender competition to provide laboratory services to the NHS will see one of the nine lots awarded this week likely to go to a private company.  

Health Services Laboratories LLP has been confirmed as the preferred bidder and commissioners are expected to finalise the arrangements with the company.  

The company is a for-profit partnership between The Doctors Laboratory– owned by Sonic Healthcare Ltd, an Australian clinical diagnostics organisation and two London NHS trusts – UCLH and the Royal Free.

Unions have already highlighted the threat to jobs as many of the existing units will close. 

The tender was part of plan to centralise Cytology services and reduce the existing 46 laboratories to only nine. However, the process has already caused a mass exodus of biomedical scientists from the centres that were marked for closure.  

The tender coincided with a wave of extra demand for screening tests in response to a Public Health England advertising campaign. Consequently, a huge backlog of samples built up with existing units understaffed and unable to cope with the extra demand. 

Delays of several months has caused unnecessary anxiety and a risk to health and has led the chair of the British Association for Cytopathology, Alison Cropper, to say that the cervical cancer screening service is ‘in meltdown’. 

Health secretary Matt Hancock has ignored calls from Unite, who represent many of the staff affected to abandon the procurement.  

Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said: 

“Losing hundreds of skilled, highly qualified professionals from the NHS, thus eroding the science and technical skills base in the NHS, is to be deplored.  

“The impact on thousands of women, who rely on cytology screeners to analyse cervical smear tests, is a huge concern.” 

It comes at a time when NHS England leaders are already under pressure to stand by their commitment to abandon the enforced tendering of NHS services, which they made back in January. 

In a parallel tendering exercise, world renowned NHS cancer screening services in Oxford are being handed over to private firm Inhealth, despite an all-party appeal to ministers.  

However, a public campaign supported by MPs, councillors and local doctors is continuing to raise questions about the logic of the decision and highlight threats to patient care and the wider service. 

Paul Evans
Author

director of the NHS Support Federation

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