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Low pay threat to cancer test jobs

THE CERVICAL screening programme that examines samples from four million women a year for early warning signs of cancer cannot find staff to do the work because they can earn more checking groceries at a supermarket.

A government report published yesterday said laboratories across the country were facing increasing difficulties recruiting staff because of poor pay and "adverse publicity" arising from the scandals that have beset the service.

Sarah May, of the Institute of Biomedical Science, said that A-level school-leavers joining a management course at Marks & Spencer were paid pounds 14,000 a year compared with pounds 7,000 a year for those that went into cervical screening. "Attracting people is a challenge.".

After two years' training, the pay of screeners rises to pounds 9,437 and then in steps to pounds 13,849 a year.

Sir Kenneth Calman, the chief medical officer, said that he was concerned about the difficulties and urged NHS managers to be flexible on pay to ensure the programme was adequately staffed. Despite the difficulties, the programme was preventing up to 3,900 cases of cervical cancer, and saving 800 lives a year, he said.

The report, by the Cervical Screening Action Team, showed that 9 of the 180 laboratories were seeing significantly fewer than 15,000 smears a year - the minimum judged necessary to maintain their expertise. Sir Kenneth said their future would be decided later this year.

The action team was set up last year after concerns over the screening service at Kent and Canterbury NHS Hospitals Trust.

At least eight women died and 90,000 were recalled for more checks by the hospital. Yesterday's report said that better training was being given to laboratory staff.

It also said that laboratories were more open about their standards, and that all were being kept under review.