Pathologists at a north east London NHS trust have voted for strike action in a dispute over new shift patterns which, it is claimed, could compromise the integrity of patients’ samples.
The warning has come from Unite, which represents 88 biomedical scientists working at Queen’s Hospital, Romford and King George Hospital, Ilford who face losing about £10,000 a year, if the new shifts go-ahead on November 4.
The pathologists, who are employed by Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, voted by 87 per cent for strike action. Strike dates are expected to be announced soon.
Unite said that it submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to probe what was happening to patient samples and the trust replied: ‘No sample is discarded prior to analysis’.
However, the trust cited ‘commercial confidentiality’ in declining to answer the question: ‘How many blood and other examples within the pathology department at Queen’s Hospital and King George Hospital have been processed after the recommended testing time in each of the last 12 months?’
Unite has also accused the management of closing down public debate at last month’s annual meeting.
The crux of the dispute is the lack of consultation by trust bosses in planning to move the present ‘on call’ system to a seven day a week shift system, which, Unite says, will cost the pathologists about £10,000 a year in lost income.
The new shift system has been repeatedly delayed, with management scheduling different implementation dates — a move Unite regional officer Ruth Hydon said “has caused great anxiety to our members”.
“It is now scheduled for November 4, but even this roster is a mess with many shifts not covered and staff being rostered on days they have already told the bosses they cannot work,” she said.
“Unite has urged the trust to put the new system ‘on hold’ and meet us to try to resolve the dispute, but management has refused,” she added.
Hydon pointed out that management has failed to appreciate that the pathologists have childcare and other caring responsibilities, as well as other commitments outside of work.
“[Staff] have had to repeatedly try to rearrange these when new implementation dates have been announced during this year,” she explained. “Management has tried desperately to bypass Unite and dupe members into signing letters accepting the new shift system.”
The new shift system means also that many members stand to lose over £10,000 in on-call payments. But above all, staff are concerned that the “management shambles” will result in an unsafe service for patients.
“Our members had legitimate concerns about the time it was allegedly taking for blood and other samples to be tested – that’s why we submitted the FoI request,” Hydon noted. “Unfortunately, the trust’s reply citing the catch-all ‘commercial confidentiality’ regarding processing after the recommended testing time still leaves serious questions lingering in the air.
“Members continue to believe that the management has not put in place safe levels of staffing for the shifts which will lead to delays and mistakes in patient test results.”
Hydon added that partnership working between management and unions, which happens at all NHS trusts and is required by the national Agenda for Change terms and conditions has “completely broken down and management has refused to meet with any unions since November 2018 because of a linked dispute over pay protection”.
Unite fears now that the trust is “completely unaccountable”.
“At the recent AGM no time for questions from the public was scheduled and, in the end, only three questions from the public were allowed,” Hydon said.
She cited results from the trust’s own staff survey which shows that the hospitals have become increasingly difficult places to work over the last two years and morale is rock bottom — a third of employees are thinking of leaving, while staff turnover, running at 14 per cent, is higher than the NHS average of 10 per cent.
“The situation is exacerbated by a recruitment crisis in the pathology department and many of the shifts will not have a safe level of staffing, which should be of serious concern for the 750,000 people covered by the trust, who rely on this service for the analysing of vital blood samples,” Hydon said.
“Unite has always been willing to discuss these issues with the trust, but we have been met with a brick wall of managerial intransigence, hence the ballot for strike action that has now received an overwhelming mandate from our members.”
In September, the pathologists (pictured), who have now voted in favour of strike action, held a protest outside King George and Queens Hospitals ahead of the strike ballot.