The GPC has warned that the launch of the Government’s flagship urgent care hotline will go ‘very badly’ from 1 April, with launches of the service in London, Manchester and Birmingham already descending into chaos.
GP leaders across the country are warning that patient care is being hampered by the service due to improperly trained staff, a lack of personnel, long waits and out-of-hours GPs having to take on extra work.
The GPC will write to the NHS Commissioning Board and the Department of Health to request that the national launch of the service to replace NHS Direct from 1 April is delayed.
GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman said he was concerned that unless the launch was delayed, it would go ‘very badly’.
He said: ‘We are very concerned that when the service goes live on 1 April, it will not be able to cope with what will happen. It clearly can’t cope in Manchester and Birmingham, how is it going to cope when London goes live?’
‘On 1 April everyone will be forced to use it and we think it will go very badly.’
In Manchester, BMA representative and LMC chair Dr John Hughes said a ‘soft launch’ of the NHS 111 system in his area failed last night, with waits of up to 90 minutes.
He said: ‘The service soft launched yesterday. Things were reasonably quiet until early evening. I spoke to one doctor who was working his shift at the out of hours service. At 9.30pm, they realised they were getting very few calls through.
‘They then got a call from a carer who had been on hold with NHS 111 for 90 minutes who was with a 90-year-old patient. She had to cancel appointments with her other patients because she did not want to leave. Shortly after that, it became clear that the ambulance service was becoming overwhelmed by calls.
‘The out-of-hours service across Manchester rightly took the view that the situation across Manchester was very dangerous and they took back control of the call handling. But they are not resourced to do that as many of their staff were [transferred] to NHS Direct.
‘I don’t think the services will cope from 1 April. We didn’t think it would cope with the soft launch.’
Dr Stewart Kay, the GPC’s lead in south London, said the situation in areas across London was a ‘shambles’.
He told Pulse: ‘The soft launch in Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth was supposed to start last Thursday.
‘With 24 hours’ notice we were told that this launch had been cancelled for the third time. This time it was because NHS Direct were not able to handle the call volumes for Bromley, Bexley and Greenwich. The Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth population is at least twice that.’
‘They have wrecked the system that was hitting all its targets on times and delivering a good service and put in a service that doesn’t work at all.’
The NHS 111 rollout has been beset with problems. Last year, official figures from pilot sites showed an 8% rise in ambulance attendances in areas of the country that piloted the Government’s new urgent care number over a year, compared with 3% in non-NHS 111 sites, leading to GPC criticism of the ‘indecent haste’ the scheme had been rolled out.
The DH also invited CCGs to apply for a delay to the rollout last year after expressed by the GPC, NHS Direct and other providers that the April 2013 deadline for the rollout of the new service was too tight for some CCGs.
Pulse revealed earlier this week that GPs were being dumped with following up any patient who contacts the Government’s new urgent care hotline more than three times over a certain period, in what amounts to a ‘charter for queue jumpers’ according to the GPC.
Health minister Lord Howe said: ‘To ensure that patients get the best care and treatment, we are giving some areas more time to go live with NHS 111 while we carry out thorough testing to ensure that those services are reliable.
‘The NHS Direct service will continue to be available to callers in areas where the NHS 111 service is in the process of being introduced.’