Exclusive: NHS 111 providers across England have recruited dozens of extra call handlers following the service’s troubled soft launch, with one even drafting in 999 operatives to take non-emergency calls, a Pulse investigation reveals.
Figures from 17 of England’s 44 NHS 111 services show that all but one region has recruited additional call handlers since the service went live, either to handle patient calls directly or to cope with an increase in demand from neighbouring services.
NHS England still insists it is aiming to complete the national NHS 111 rollout by the end of June, but CCGs are admitting they cannot guarantee this target will be met, while NHS Direct - the biggest provider in the country – has revealed it is still in discussions over how many call handlers it requires.
NHS Direct has already increased the number of call handlers answering 111 calls from 434 in mid-March to 502. In total the 17 services able to provide figures, including NHS Direct, have taken on an additional 90 staff, increasing the number of whole-time equivalent call handlers from 970 to 1,060.
In NHS Direct’s Dudley centre, which covers the West Midlands, 37 call handlers have been drafted in to add to the 109 who were in place when the service was first soft-launched in mid-March. Eastern Ambulance Services, which runs the service in Norfolk, has almost doubled its number of call handlers from 32 to 61.
A spokesperson said: ‘The tender process for the NHS 111 Service ran much earlier in Norfolk than other areas nationally closing in Dec 2012.
‘After this period specifications and staffing guidelines were changed by the Department of Health.’
Meanwhile South East Coast Ambulance Service, which runs NHS 111 in Kent, Surrey and Sussex, told Pulse it was using 999 call handlers to help cover demand.
A spokesperson said: ‘Some 999 staff are supporting 111 at the moment. However, this is not to the detriment to the 999 service and staff are only assisting if available for overtime shifts.’
Some providers said they were still looking to recruit additional call handlers, with South Coast Ambulance Service reporting that it was still planning to hire nine additional staff for its services in Oxfordshire and Hampshire to cover demand. But many providers said they were still in discussions with commissioners about how many staff they will need to deliver the service.
Nick Chapman, NHS Direct chief executive, said: ‘We are looking at the number of additional staff needed to deliver our NHS 111 services in the future, and this is subject to our service delivery plans. We are still in conversation with our commissioners and no numbers have been confirmed at this stage.’
Call handlers take six weeks to train, which has led to growing fears that the service will not be rolled out by the end of June as NHS England hopes.
A senior GP commissioner, who asked not to be named, told Pulse that NHS 111 was not going to be rolled out in their region by the end of June, while a spokesperson for CCGs across Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire admitted they were unable to categorically state that they would be able to meet the deadline.
Dr Peter Holden, GPC negotiator and a GP in Matlock, Derbyshire, said the rush to recruit staff was indiciative of ministers’ lack of understanding of the demands on the service.
He said: ‘The Government expects 37% of the population to consult with NHS 111 over a year. The health service was funded to provide two out-of-hours consultations in a lifetime and one of those was to certify your death… In other words they are trying to run a national happiness service…. We cannot go on like this.’
‘If you get lay people handling calls, it will take longer as these people are crawling through algorithms. A doctor or a nurse can short-circuit this and if things don’t add up, they have the knowledge that things don’t add up.’