The recruitment crisis in NHS pathology laboratories is getting worse, according to a union survey which found a 20 per cent shortfall in lab staff nationally.

Four in five pathology department heads said the government's refusal to address low pay for NHS scientists meant the crisis would deepen. The survey by the MSF union found that 68 per cent of labs have long-term vacancies.

These findings support claims by the Institute of Biomedical Science last month that unqualified staff might be conducting laboratory tests. Twenty-eight per cent of respondents to the MSF survey said posts in their labs had not been filled by suitably qualified staff.

East Hertfordshire trust has seven vacancies out of a lab staff of 30.

Pathology services manager John Kersey said the switch to degree-level entry for medical laboratory scientific officers and low pay had created the crisis.

'Graduates come out of university after years of training to find that the pay in the NHS is so dire it isn't worth them coming into the profession, ' he said.

Mr Kersey revealed that his trust had been forced to develop a new approach to its use of lab staff. A working group to develop multi-skilling has been established, with technical staff on the tier below MLSOs being trained for the first time to take on a role in the production of test results.