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Trust hospital plans to sell laboratories

AN NHS trust hospital is negotiating the sale of its laboratories to a Swiss company to help cut staff and equipment costs. If a deal is struck, it would be the first privatisation of an NHS clinical service under the recent reorganisation, writes Judy Jones.

The North Herts NHS Trust, based at the Lister Hospital, Stevenage, was approached by UNI Clinical Laboratories (UCL) last year with plans to acquire the laboratories, and provide diagnostic services to the trust and others.

Hospital doctors, who are fighting the move, say it confirms that the creation of NHS trusts were part of a 'hidden agenda of privatisation' of services. The Royal College of Pathologists has called on the Department of Health to draw up guidelines to restrict piecemeal privatisation.

Hospitals have 'contracted out' support services for several years. However, the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act gave hospitals opting for trust status further scope for financial independence, including new freedoms to buy and dispose of assets.

Under plans being discussed, UCL would have exclusive user rights for 10 years. Only the four consultant pathologists and the senior biochemist would continue to be employed by the trust. The remaining 60 staff would be offered new contracts with UCL.

'We decided to review the laboratory services because they were losing some work,' the North Herts trust said. 'No deal has yet been agreed. The matter is still under discussion.'