A decision on a public-private partnership for laboratory services in all trusts should be postponed for 'a couple of years' until staffing has stabilised, according to health union MSF.

The union has been closely involved in discussions with the Department of Health on the potential for the idea, but believes that any plans should be stalled until there is some indication of whether the recruitment and retention crisis the sector has faced is being resolved.

The DoH has made a pay offer of up to 17 per cent for trainees and some basic-grade staff, linked to a restructuring exercise, and head of MSF's pathology committee Dan Smith says the award will 'help recruitment dramatically', but 'would not do a lot for retention'.

'Something that disrupts staff such as a public-private partnership is something we should not be getting into now, ' he said.

MSF emphasises that with the bulk of experienced lab staff limited to the basic non-review body pay offer of 3.7 per cent, the time is not yet right for consideration of a partnership route with the private sector, though Mr Smith told HSJ it was likely to accept the pay offer at a meeting yesterday.

MSF's concerns about the implications of a public-private partnership for staff include possible deterioration in quality of service, terms and conditions of employment and loss of pension rights.

The union is trying to clarify the potential role for the private sector. 'We have no problem doing deals to get nice shiny equipment that we would not get otherwise, ' added Mr Smith. 'But we remain to be convinced that changing the way the service is delivered would give us better services.'