LONDON (Reuters), Sep 22 - Up to 900 NHS supply workers were striking on Friday over what they say is creeping privatization of the health service, with further action planned for next Wednesday during Labour's annual conference.
The strike, which began at 10 p.m. on Thursday, is the first of two 24-hour stoppages by Unison union members in protest against government plans to outsource medical supplies to German-owned courier company DHL and American healthcare contractor Novation.
It is the first nationwide strike to hit the NHS for 18 years and is aimed at disrupting medical and food supplies to hospitals and GPs' surgeries across England.
"We have had only had a handful of people crossing picket lines," a Unison official said.
The second day of action will coincide with a motion by Dave Prentis, the union's general secretary, at the Labour conference in which he will call for the government "to rethink the headlong rush to a competitive system."
Unison believes the effects of the two strikes will be cumulative because while the NHS has ensured it has stocks of the most important supplies, most hospitals no longer hold huge supplies for cash efficiency and storage reasons.
"There will be two days where hospitals will not have been able to get their supplies in. This will cause a backlog," the union spokeswoman said. "We expect the effects of the strike to be felt next week."
The Department of Health was not immediately available to comment, but has previously said the strike will not cause significant disruption and that it has contingency plans.
Around 1,650 staff from NHS Logistics and the NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency (PASA) are due to be transferred to DHL, a subsidiary of Germany's Deutsche Post, on October 1 under a government plan unveiled earlier this month.
NHS Logistics was established in 2000 to source and deliver products ranging from food to bedding and medical equipment to hospitals, doctors' surgeries and other NHS organizations.
The government says the NHS will save 1 billion pounds under the 10-year contract with DHL by expanding the range of products supplied.
Last Updated: 2006-09-22 11:01:31 -0400 (Reuters Health)
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