Hewitt defends NHS sell-off

Patricia Hewitt has defended the sell-off of the NHS delivery firm, insisting staff and services will benefit from the move.

The health secretary said the decision to sell NHS Logistics – which supplies hospitals with everything from syringes to bed pans – to German delivery firm DHL would protect patients and safeguard employment rights.

Unison, the health service union, announced at yesterday’s TUC conference that NHS Logistics staff had voted to strike against the move, and bosses have warned it could lead to a lack of essential supplies, such as bedpans and latex gloves.

However, Ms Hewitt told Today the NHS would save £1 billion over the period of the 10-year deal, which was “good for the staff, good for the NHS and for patients”.

Although she acknowledged that NHS Logistics’ staff “are working hard”, she noted the organisation only supplied around ten per cent of products to hospitals.

“We’ve looked at this extremely carefully and it is quite clear that with this new arrangement we’re going to be able to save the NHS at least a billion pounds over the next ten years – that is money that will all go straight into better care for patients,” she said.

Pledging to protect the employment rights for staff, and offering a retirement fund “comparable” to the NHS pension, the health secretary dismissed privatisation claims as “absolute nonsense”.

“I realise that it is difficult,” she acknowledged.

“It’s difficult for the staff of NHS Logistics whom we’re asking to transfer to a private company, although they will continue to be working for the NHS as part of the NHS and true to its values.

“We’re not in fact selling off the business to private shareholders in the way that gas or telecommunications for instance was privatised.”

The deal will see 1,700 NHS Logistics’ employees and the NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency transferred to the private sector. And from next month, DHL will supply hospitals with products ranging from paperclips to bed linen, syringes to MRI scanners.

The Department of Health said most hospitals kept their own stock of products and would not be affected by the strike.

But union bosses have declared the strike would have an immediate impact on supplies, is likely to cause “major inconvenience” and could even see operations cancelled.

The timing of the industrial action will be decided on Friday, and it is thought it could be planned to coincide with the Labour party conference.