TALKS are under way at Croydon University Hospital aimed at cutting the number of people on duty in operating theatres overnight.
Croydon Health Services has begun a consultation with staff about the suggested changes in working practices, which Unison has described as a "cost-cutting exercise" that would lead to staff working night followed by day shifts.
The consultation document shows that, at present, a total of seven nurses and one healthcare assistant work split shifts in the theatres from 9pm to 8am.
The suggestion is that staff numbers working all night could be reduced to one nurse and one healthcare assistant. But the report maintains care would not be hit because other staff would be on call to deal with any emergency operations.
It also points out that, between January and the end of June, just 34 operations have been undertaken after midnight.
Croydon Health Services said the changes would bring Croydon into line with most other hospitals, and with national guidelines for night-time cover in theatres.
But the changes appear at odds with the trust's recent decision to spend as much as £6.8 million it has not budgeted for – as part of an annual deficit of £14.5 million – to recruit more nurses, consultants and midwives, in part to ensure more senior cover on wards overnight.
Chief executive John Goulston said the deficit plan was the only way to drive up standards and reduce the reliance on agency staff.
Unison regional officer Michael Walker said: "Unison, along with other unions, remain concerned about these cost-cutting changes, primarily with the detrimental impact on nursing staff rotas.
"Our concern is that long-standing night staff will be forced to work days and nights, which is never nice.
"Management urgently needs to address these concerns and reassure staff appropriately."
He added: "What is clear is that it is in the interest of all for both management and unions to continue to address patient safety and over-reliance on agency nursing staff at the hospital."
Hospital deputy chief executive Karen Breen said: "We take the safety of our patients very seriously.
"We are looking at how best to schedule our theatre night duty cover to meet the needs of the service."
She said any changes would be monitored to ensure patient care and safety was maintained.
Ms Breen added: "Providing high-quality care 24 hours a day, seven days a week remains a key priority for the trust."