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Ban on surgery 0844 numbers 'highly unlikely'

By Steve Nowottny

The Department of Health is set to back down from banning the use of 0844 numbers in GP practices, the country's biggest supplier has claimed.

The Department's long-awaited report into the issue – originally due to be published at the end of March – had been expected to clamp down on use of the numbers, which can cost patients up to 20p a minute to call from mobile phones.

But NEG Surgery Line, a national provider of telephone systems and a major contributor to the Department's review, told Pulse it was ‘highly unlikely' 0844 numbers would be banned.

NEG spokesperson Kath Simons said the company had submitted a comprehensive report to the Department of Health in December, setting out the case for keeping the numbers. ‘The department then decided to do its own analysis, but only contacted 30 surgeries in the whole country, so maybe it had already made up its mind to go through the motions,' she said.

The Government had indicated in January it intended to take a tough line, health minister Ivan Lewis warning it was not ‘consistent with best professional practice' to charge patients more than the local rate.

But Leeds LMC recently met with NEG, and is now advising its practices that it does not expect the threatened ban on 0844 numbers to proceed.

Consumer lobbyists reacted angrily to the claims, and said they were confident ministers would take action. Campaigner David Hickson said: ‘If Alan Johnson has this before him, I can't see him defending a situation where we allow people to carry on with 0844 numbers.'

But Ms Simons said her company had dozens of practices willing to use an 0844 telephone system, but many were instructed by PCTs to await the outcome of the review. We are pushing for it to come to a conclusion, as we do feel in a state of limbo.'

Dr Peter Jolliffe, chief officer of Devon LMC, said the Government should tackle the use of premium-rate numbers by hospital trusts and NHS Direct before targeting GPs.

‘They cannot have one rule for GPs and another rule for hospitals,' he said. ‘Take the plank out of your own eye before you address the mote in other people's.'

A Department of Health spokesperson said that ‘information gathering' for the report was still ongoing, and that no publication date had been set.

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