NHS Workers Vote to Strike in Protest at Privatisation

Hospitals and GP surgeries face shortages of key medical equipment after NHS workers decided yesterday to stage the first national strikes in the health service since 1988. As anger increases over the policy of using private companies to provide NHS services, Unison, the public services union, announced that its members at NHS Logistics had voted by 74 per cent to strike over the £1.6 billion sale of their network to the German haulage firm DHL.

NHS Logistics employs 1,400 people to deliver everything from food to syringes and throwaway urinals direct to hospital wards and GP surgeries across England.

Delegates at the TUC Congress cheered when Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary, announced the result of the postal ballot that set the stage for the first strikes to take place before or during the Labour Party conference in Manchester in a fortnight.

Senior Unison officers will meet on Friday to decide what form the strikes should take. Officials suggested an initial series of one-day strikes would be staged as the first part of a “rolling” programme of industrial action.

The announcement came as all the main health unions representing doctors, nurses, midwives, physiotherapists and anciliary workers joined forces in a campaign aimed at forcing ministers to rethink plans to extend private sector involvement. They will stage a series of demonstrations, culminating in a lobby of Parliament next spring.

Before the last election, ministers said the private sector would provide no more than 15 per cent of services in the NHS. They have since admitted that involvement may expand well beyond that.

Tony Blair, who today addresses the TUC for the last time as Labour leader, will face hostile questions on the expanding role of private companies in the NHS when he answers questions.

Later, at a dinner with union chiefs, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, will be told he should guarantee a reversal of NHS policy as the price for union backing in the Labour leadership contest.

Unison said prolonged strikes would mean hospitals quickly running out of bulky equipment such as bedpans which were hard to stockpile.

Other equipment such as hand gel, latex gloves and food, including breakfast cereals, drinks and tinned vegetables would run short.

Mr Prentis said the decision to award the 10-year contract would turn the clock back 20 years as DHL tried to provide more cost-effective services. “Hospitals will need huge storage areas to cope with bulk buying,” he said. “Wards can order one packet of cornflakes if that’s what they want.

“Under DHL they will have to order packs of 14 boxes and hospitals will have to find space to store them and busy nurses and ward staff will have to unpack and stack them.”

Under rules laid down to protect former public service workers after privatisation, the 1,400 workers will be protected although the unions fear that in the long run their pay and conditions may not match those still in the NHS.

Paul Harper, Unison’s branch secretary at the Maidstone depot, Kent, said: “We deliver direct to hospital wards and operating theatres so getting it wrong could be a matter of life and death. This is not a service the Government should be gambling with by handing it over to a parcel delivery company.”

Unison is also seeking a judicial review against the DHL contract.

If the strikes go ahead it will be the biggest bout of national industrial action in the health service since midwives struck over pay in 1988.

A Health Department spokesman played down the effects of strike action. “The NHS uses 500,000 different products but only around 51,000 are provided by NHS Logistics. Most hospitals have their own local supply and delivery arrangements.

“We have put detailed contingency plans in place to ensure minimum disruption.”