Unions have urged the government to slow down the roll out of the new non-emergency NHS telephone service amid fears a lack of nursing input could increase pressure on other services.
NHS 111 is due to replace NHS Direct from April 2013. But unlike NHS Direct, which is a national service, contracts for NHS 111 are being offered to providers on a regional or local basis and at cheaper cost.
The RCN and Unison claims it will mean fewer registered nurses are employed to provide advice, which will increase pressure on accident and emergency departments and other parts of the urgent care system.
Latest data from NHS 111 pilots shows attendances at A&E departments have actually risen at three out of the four sites – increasing by 12% in Nottingham City, 6% in Luton and 4% in Lincolnshire. The longest running pilot in County Durham and Darlington has seen a 3% decline.
Unison national officer for NHS Direct Michael Walker said: “The Department of Health’s rush to implement the 111 service, without a full evaluation of the pilots, will have a catastrophic impact on A&E Departments [and] GP surgeries, who will be deluged with thousands of patients unable to secure professional nursing advice.”
Meanwhile, unions also claim up to 300 frontline staff at NHS Direct, including a high proportion of disabled workers, are at risk of losing their jobs due to changes to working patterns. Those unable to work the revised shifts will be dismissed with the option to reapply for the remaining shifts.
Managers claim the changes are vital if the organisation is to survive by winning some of the NHS 111 contracts.
Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said: “We know that NHS Direct is in a difficult position at the moment, however many of the staff have worked there for years and are naturally very worried and upset about the future.”
In a statement NHS Direct chief nurse Tricia Hamilton said there were “enough spaces for everyone to be allocated to a new roster pattern” without the need for job losses.