Pathology services in the East of England could be permanently damaged by uncertainty surrounding a controversial redesign of services in the region, professionals have warned.

The warning, from the Royal College of Pathologists, came after strategic health authority cluster NHS Midlands and East confirmed to HSJ that a key announcement on preferred bidders for the Transforming Pathology Services programme had been delayed from this month until the “end of the year”.

The project, is expected to lead to hospital laboratories being reduced in size and handling only urgent work, while larger hubs would handle non-urgent work for other hospitals and GPs, as well as their own urgent work.

It could cut the east of England’s pathology bill by up to £40m annually, according to the SHA cluster. This figure is based on savings targets outlined in the Carter Review, a national review of pathology services published in 2008.

The royal college’s president Archie Prentice said: “Delays to decision making about service reconfiguration during the contracting process can lead to uncertainty among pathology staff including our fellows and amongst clinical users and patients.

“Once lost, these invaluable staff and their experience and skills will be very difficult to replace and the confidence of the public in pathology and pathologists may never be recovered.”

A spokesman for NHS Midlands and East said: “We hope to be able to announce this decision by the end of the year.

“The strategic projects team and its advisors are still in discussion with PCTs and CCGs about preferred bidders. Once these discussions are completed the announcement will be made.”

A senior source in the region told HSJ the delay was being caused by CCG chiefs who are unhappy that the strategic health authority was carrying out the review, which is slated to go live next April, on their behalf, rather than them doing it themselves.

Seven hospitals have put in a bid to the SHA for non-urgent work to be centralised at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and at Ipswich, with the other five sites keeping urgent services.

The SHA says all 18 trusts in the East of England are involved in at least one bid.