Published: 11/4/2002, Volume II2, No. 5800 Page 10

Medical secretaries are on indefinite strike in an escalation of the regrading dispute at City Hospitals Sunderland trust, while two other trusts in the North East are set to see similar action.

Around 130 medical secretaries at the Sunderland trust have voted to escalate their action in pursuit of an upgrade to grade four, following a series of three and fourday strikes.

Senior medical secretaries already at the top of grade four have joined the action in support of their colleagues.

And medical secretaries at South Tyneside Health Care and South Durham Health Care trusts have also voted for industrial action over the same issue, with South Tyneside secretaries striking for a day on Friday 5 April and then for three days this week.

South Durham secretaries were set to begin a four-day strike on Monday 8 April.

Unison northern regional head of health Liz Twist said: 'I think medical secretaries throughout the region have for too long been underpaid and under valued for the work they do. They are now saying It is time to recognise the work we do and recognise it in our pay packet by regrading us.'

A City Hospitals Sunderland spokesperson said: 'The trust has continued to make offers to try and resolve the dispute, but to date these have all been rejected, including the offer to go to independent binding arbitration through ACAS.'

Further meetings had been scheduled in an attempt to resolve the dispute, while contingency arrangements were in place to try to minimise disruption to patients.

South Tyneside Health Care trust said it had made a revised offer just before the strike vote that would give a maximum salary package of£15,894, including proficiency allowances. But this had been rejected by the secretaries. The trust had made 'contingency plans' which would ensure no operations or clinics were cancelled during the strike.

A South Durham Health Care trust spokesperson said: 'We are extremely saddened by the decision to strike. We recognise the valuable work that is done by our medical secretaries and we are disappointed that the trade union has not responded to our ongoing offers to discuss this regrading claim.'

Ms Twist said Unison's 'preferred option' was to resolve the dispute through talks. The union would be prepared to negotiate on the basis of 'realistic offers', she said.