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Fresh doubts over staffing at NHS Direct

NHS Direct is battling to overcome staff shortages at most of its sites, Government figures reveal.

The statistics have cast fresh doubt on Department of Health plans to expand the nurse triage service to become a single point of contact for GP out-of-hours calls.

GP co-operatives said the shortage of nurses and call handlers was proof NHS

Direct was set an unachievable task to recruit enough people to handle rising demand.

The staffing figures, revealed in a Commons written answer, showed South East London NHS Direct had the biggest shortfall, with 26.4 nurses out of a full complement of 37.

North Central London had a shortfall of 9.9 nurses in

August, Kent Surrey Sussex 9.8, Thames Valley 8.2 and East Midlands 6.6.

South East London Doctors on Call, a co-op testing links with NHS Direct, said it was 'very concerned' about the service's ability to take more of its calls.

Dr Rob Ferns, medical director of Sussex Doctors on Call, said the staff shortages made the co-op wary about future integration with NHS Direct Kent Surrey Sussex

Dr Ferns, a GP in Lewes, said: 'This must cast doubt on their ability to extend their cover. We would be keen to talk to them about co-operation with our own nurse triage service, as we would be keen to see that used as an alternative.'

The Government's NHS Direct review, published in April this year, outlined plans to increase capacity from six to 16 million calls a year by 2006.

But it also put back the deadline for NHS Direct to become a first point of contact for out-of-hours calls from December 2004 to 2006 after GP co-ops reported problems linking up with the service.

The department said there was 'no underlying problem with recruiting staff'. A spokesman said: 'A range of initiatives are in hand to co-

ordinate recruitment across NHS Direct sites to maximise staff and capacity for winter and beyond.'

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