The NHS is taking new steps to involve the private sector in pathology services, following the collapse of a high-profile proposal for a£10m public-private partnership deal for Greater Manchester earlier this year.

It had originally been proposed that there would be a series of pilot PPP schemes to provide pathology services, starting over the summer. However, the timing of the election and problems relating to private finance initiative schemes meant the pilots were put on hold.

It is now expected that four pilot schemes will go ahead in the new year, with the intention of agreeing arrangements with MSF, the union representing laboratory workers, by Christmas.However, it seems likely that only one of the pilots will involve the private sector.

MSF had opposed the Manchester scheme, fronted by private pathology firm Quest Diagnostics, but since post-election discussions with the prime minister on PPPs and PFI, the union has adopted a more conciliatory tone on the subject of private sector deals.

It is understood that the pilots, based at sites round the country, will look at a range of models for centralising pathology services and will examine how to arrange 24-hour cover.

MSF head of health Roger Spiller said discussion about the involvement of private companies would depend on resolving the issue of who is regarded as a supervisor or manager, in terms of the employment transfer model, as many laboratory workers are regarded as supervisors.

He said: 'A lot will depend on the retention of the employment model.When we apply that to laboratories, it would be difficult to stay in the NHS in a realistic sense, as supervisors are excluded.'

Mr Spiller said there were a number of possible models for rationalising pathology services, including centralisation within one trust, partial centralisation with some services still provided by individual trusts, or provision of services such as virology on a regional basis.

'There are also issues over 24 hour cover. Our view, frankly, is that there needs to be a proper arrangement, ' he added.

Though the pilot sites have not yet been agreed, it is unlikely that Greater Manchester will be involved. The PPP proposal involving centralising services across four trusts in the area has been scrapped in favour of a purely NHS model.

However, the proposal for a centralised pathology service, currently with external consultants, is on hold as the trusts have been investigating a four-way merger.