By Ian Quinn
The Government has said it will close down the controversial NHS Direct telephone service in England, replacing it with a new 111 number to be rolled out across the country.
The move, which follows years of doubts among GPs over the cost effectiveness and expertise of the NHS Direct service, was announced by health secretary Andrew Lansley, with the service the latest in a string of flagship Labour projects to face the scrapheap under the coalition.
While the BMA and many GPs have called for NHS Direct to be culled, the intention to replace the service with the new three digit number, which has only just begun trials in England, has sparked fears that it could reduce even further the number of medically trained staff on hand to answer calls from the public, after a Pulse investigation revealed cost-cutting plans are set to slash the number of trained staff.
Mr Lansley revealed the 111 service would replace NHS Direct once it is rolled out nationally, having attended an official launch of the new line in one of the first pilot areas in the northeast of England last week.
He said: ‘It is essential that we improve access to, and understanding about, urgent care services, which includes out-of-hours care. At present, too many people are confused about who to contact and how to do so.’
‘By putting in place one easily memorable 111 number for all urgent inquiries to run alongside the emergency 999 number we will simplify NHS services for patients. 111 will be free to call and available 24/7, putting patients in touch with the right NHS service, first time.’
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham claimed the move was part of a campaign to ‘dismantle” the NHS and urged MPs to try to block the move.
But a spokeperson for the Department of Health denied the move was part of a bid to slash costs.
She said: ‘This is not a cost cutting exercise, but is about providing a better service to patients.’
GPs at this year’s LMCs conference and later at the BMA annual conference in Brighton overwhelmingly backed calls for the Government to scrap NHS Direct, which Pulse exclusively revealed in June cost the NHS £123m this year.
And GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman backed Mr Lansley’s decision, arguing that NHS Direct had ‘delayed rather than improved care’.
‘I can’t say we’re sad,’ he told Pulse. ‘It has achieved very little for the NHS.’
‘111 will primarily be a signposting system, it will be better to talk directly to a GP OOH service rather than being triaged. It could be a much better service.’
Pulse also revealed NHS Direct is drafting in managers with no background in nursing or medicine to run its call centres as it seeks to slash costs by £28m.
The reconfiguration plans, which were being finalised before the health secretary’s announcement, would leave just one nurse managers to every 39 members of staff and there have been claims from the Royal College of Nursing and the public service union UNISON that the 111 number will be staffed by even fewer clinically-trained personnel.
Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct, said: ‘NHS Direct is working hard with all of the local health communities involved in the three ‘pathfinder’ sites for NHS 111 to make these first tests of the new approach a success for patients and the NHS in their area. When detailed plans are made to roll out the service nationally, we hope NHS Direct staff will be able to contribute their experience to the new service.’
NHS Direct: to be replaced by new 111 service NHS Direct: to be replaced by new 111 service