Hospitals could be left without catering and medical supplies if a strike by 1,400 staff at supply agency NHS Logistics goes ahead.

Hospitals could be left without catering and medical supplies if a strike by 1,400 staff at supply agency NHS Logistics goes ahead.

Staff at the organisation voted by three to one to strike in protest at the decision to hand over the work of NHS Logistics to German courier DHL (news, page 7, 7 September).

The results of the ballot by members of Unison was announced at this week's Trades Union Congress, which saw the government under ferocious attack over job cuts and perceived 'marketisation' of the NHS.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis warned Labour at the conference in Brighton that it could not take his union's support 'for granted' if it continued to subject its members to 'a permanent revolution driven by those who believe the market knows best'.

The union will announce tomorrow what action it is likely to take, amid rumours that a national strike - the first in the NHS since 1988 - could be timed to coincide with the Labour conference in Manchester later this month.

Mr Prentis said the action could affect supplies of disposable bedpans, hand gel, protective gloves, and food such as breakfast cereals and tinned vegetables.

'These are not troublemakers, not hardliners, but workers who care deeply about the NHS, who want to stay part of it,' he said of those who had voted in favour of a strike.

'They are taking a stand to protect their jobs and help save the NHS.'

Unison will also be seeking a judicial review of the government's decision to hand DHL the supply contract.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health played down the strike threat, saying NHS Logistics provided only 10 per cent of trusts' catering and medical supplies and office equipment, with most hospitals having their own local arrangements.

'However, we have put detailed contingency plans in place to ensure minimum disruption to NHS services in the event of any industrial action,' she said.

'A contingency planning group has been formed, comprising senior representatives from NHS Logistics. All distribution centre controllers have been instructed to maintain a full staff complement at all times and to keep in place the temporary staff recruited for holiday cover so that we can respond to customer demand.'

NHS Confederation policy director Nigel Edwards said: 'We would hope that strike action does not place patient care in jeopardy.'

The TUC conference saw the formal launch of NHS Together, an 'unprecedented' campaign to 'challenge government thinking' on the NHS. The campaign has the support of TUC-affiliated unions as well as professional bodies such as the British Medical Association.

TUC secretary general Brendan Barber said it showed NHS staff 'from the cleaner to the consultant' were united against the government's reforms.

Meanwhile, Amicus released a survey showing that three quarters of its representatives want an immediate change of Labour leader, and the Public and Commercial Services union warned it would be balloting members on strike action over privatisation and job cuts over the next few weeks.