Unite is calling for the potential privatisation of cervical screening services to be suspended, following reports that the service is “in meltdown”.
Used by thousands of women each year, laboratory services involving cervical screening are now being put out to tender – a move that would reduce the existing 46 laboratories to only nine. Successful bidders are due to be announced on April 12.
Earlier this month, British Association for Cytopathology Alison Cropper described the cervical cancer screening service as being ‘in meltdown’.
Cropper said that this was because there was a massive increase in women signing up to take cervical screening or ‘smear’ tests following a Public Health England (PHE) publicity campaign, which coincided with biomedical scientists leaving their jobs in droves.
This exodus of biomedical scientists is, Cropper said, in direct response to the proposed reduction of laboratories from nearly 50 to only nine.
One senior biomedical scientist told the Guardian that almost half the staff had left the small lab where he works at a time when the number of samples had increased fivefold.
The news reports reflected what Unite has found in its own survey of healthcare scientists members, which revealed workplace morale at rock bottom.
A strong majority – 80 per cent – of respondents said their workload had increased either a little or a lot over the previous year, while 71 per cent said that morale in their workplace was worse or a lot worse compared to the year before. 68 per cent had raised concerns over safe staffing in their workplace in the last year.
The situation prompted Unite national health officer Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe to call on health secretary Matt Hancock to immediately halt the proposed privatisation of laboratory services.
He called on Hancock “to use your office to intervene especially, after the press reports over the weekend that state the cervical screening service is in ‘meltdown’, following the launch of a Public Health England campaign to encourage more women to attend cervical screenings.”
“This follows reports that there are already several months in backlogs in patients receiving their cervical test results,” Jarrett-Thorpe wrote. “This is traumatic for patients and is caused by not just the extra demand for cervical screening, but also the shortage of scientific staff who conduct the tests.
“Some are deciding to leave the service rather than taking a chance to find out if their laboratory will be a winner in the tendering process.”
Jarrett-Thorpe highlighted a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report on health screening which found that the roll-out of the HPV programme and resulting staff shortages will affect performance by causing backlogs and delays leading to missed targets for sample turnaround times.
Capita contract stripped
Impending privatisation of laboratory services involving cervical screening has come just as NHS England last week announced it would be stripping the outsourcing firm Capita of its contract to administer the cervical screening programme.
The decision comes after Capita – a private contractor that’s gaining notoriety for bungling a number of government contracts – made mistakes that led to more than 40,000 women not receiving the correct smear test information. An additional 4,508 did not receive letters informing them of their results.
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens told the Commons public accounts committee that the NHS “had not been satisfied with the way in which that has been performing”.
“Indeed, as you also know, there was an issue last year that came to light when we were notified late by Capita about delays in letters going out,” he said, announcing the NHS would now be bringing the service back in-house from June, followed by a phased transition through the rest of the year.
Jarrett-Thorpe welcomed the decision to strip Capita of its contract.
“This announcement by NHS England strongly reinforces Unite’s argument that the outsourcing of NHS services to profit-hungry companies is a fatally flawed model,” he said. “You can’t put a shareholder price tag on women’s health.”