THE Coalition’s privately-run flagship ‘NHS 111’ service was thrown into disarray yesterday, when NHS Direct announced it is to pull out.
NHS 111 is run by different organisations in each area, including private companies, ambulance trusts and NHS Direct – which ran the old telephone advice line.
NHS Direct, which had initially won 11 of the 46 regional contracts for NHS 111, covering 34% of the population, had already pulled out of two of those contracts, but announced yesterday that the remaining nine are ‘financially unsustainable’.
Adding to the 111 meltdown, last night’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme revealed that another 111 provider, Harmoni, has reported staff shortages, long waits for callers and some cases of ambulances being called out unnecessarily.
The programme reported one call centre manager saying the service was ‘unsafe’ at weekends because there were too few staff to deal with the calls coming in.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the BMA’s GP committee said yesterday: ‘The implementation and planning of NHS 111 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 . . .
‘We cannot have a situation where patients are placed at risk or suffer from substandard healthcare because contracts have been improperly awarded.’
Sara Gorton, Unison Deputy Head of Health, said: ‘NHS Direct had run the service for many years with patients getting expert advice from a skilled mix of nurses and call handlers.
‘Unison warned that the new 111 service would be a shadow of the former helpline, and would come under pressure to reduce the number of nurses and downgrade the levels of clinical help previously available.
‘The new 111 service has far fewer nurses taking calls and the new service fails to “clinically assess” patients, leading to more patients being sent to A&E and to GP surgeries.
‘The government rushed through the trials of 111 in its haste to increase private competition and it is patients who are now paying the price.’