The implementation and planning of NHS111 has been an abject failure.
NHS Direct struggled to cope with the volume of calls it was receiving despite having years to plan for the launch of NHS 111. Other already overstretched services, such as GP out of hours providers, have had to step in and undertake the workload that was supposed to be dealt with by NHS 111. It is worrying that patients had to wait twice as long as recommended for their calls to be answered.
Sadly, many of these failures have occurred in many parts of the country.
The decision by NHS Direct to seek a withdrawal from its contracts to provide NHS 111 reveals worrying flaws not just with the tendering process for NHS 111 contracts, but for how contracts are awarded and monitored throughout the NHS. The Department of Health gave the BMA written assurances that there would be strict safeguards in place to ensure that NHS 111 providers would have the clinical and financial ability to deliver a safe, effective service to patients.
A number of local GPs and the BMA raised concerns during the tendering process about the low nature of some of the successful bids which were ignored.
If this failure can occur with NHS 111, there is no reason why it could not happen with other parts of the NHS, as demonstrated by the recent investigation into the provision of out of hours services in Cornwall. Tonight’s Dispatches programme is likely to highlight a further catalogue of mistakes across NHS 111’s operations. We cannot have a situation where patients are placed at risk or suffer from substandard healthcare because contracts have been improperly awarded.
The Government should expand its review into NHS 111 to include an examination of what went wrong with the tendering process, particularly whether providers were given an advantage if they put in the lowest bid. There must be a firm commitment in the light of this failure from ministers that the procurement process across the NHS meets strict quality standards and happens safely and effectively.
If NHS 111 is to recover it must receive proper funding and be closely integrated with local NHS services. The Government must review its competitive tendering approach and instead look towards an integrated model based on cooperation between local services.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul is chair of the GPC