An audiology contract has been delayed indefinitely because the provider has not been able to sign off quality and safety guarantees with the Department of Health, HSJ has learnt.

The DoH had awarded Mercury Health preferred bidder status to provide diagnostics services to NHS patients across the West Midlands, on behalf of the region's 17 primary care trusts. However the delay in the audiology contract has left PCTs fearful that they may miss next year's 18-week maximum wait target.

The audiology work, scheduled to start this week, was to clear a backlog of cases and help to hit the 18-week target.

Claire Old, Telford PCT director of commissioning and service improvement and NHS Alliance national lead for diagnostics, told HSJ that the delay could jeopardise meeting the 18-week target in some parts of the West Midlands.

'I understand that the statement of readiness between the DoH and Mercury Health has not yet been signed off for audiology services,' she said.

'We have not been given a date when they might start.'

A DoH spokesman said Mercury Health had not yet shown that it could 'ensure patient safety and high-quality healthcare for NHS patients'. The contract would only proceed when this had been guaranteed, he said.

The spokesman said that 'interim arrangements' were being put in place across the region but could not say what these were.

A spokeswoman for Mercury Health said it could not comment on the contract as it was still in discussions with the DoH.

The DoH's contract with Mercury Health to provide other types of diagnostics services to patients in the West Midlands will start at the end of May, two months after the government's original deadline.

In February, HSJ revealed that Bupa had pulled out of a contract with the DoH to provide diagnostic services across the South East (news, page 9, 8 February).

Amicus InHealth, a joint venture between Amicus Healthcare and InHealth Group, has won preferred bidder status on two of the diagnostics contracts in London and the East of England. Atos Origin will provide diagnostic services to patients in the South West, and Alliance Medical has won preferred bidder status for the North East.