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Launch of new urgent care phone service delayed in third of country


NHS Direct has been asked to provide a contingency service in almost a third of England due to delays in rolling out the government’s flagship 111 urgent care phone number.

The new non-emergency telephone number was due to have been rolled out across the country by today, replacing NHS Direct’s 0845 number, under a target set by the Department of Health.

However, NHS Direct has been asked to continue to provide the service in 17 areas, including the West Midlands and South East Coast regions, due to concerns about readiness.

In most of these areas, NHS 111 has been “soft launched”, meaning it has begun receiving out-of-hours calls, but will not progress to full launch and take over calls to NHS Direct’s 0845 number until after Easter.

As of yesterday morning, about 30% of the country in terms of population will be retaining the 0845 number although the situation is still changing. The North West was also due to fully launch yesterday. If it did not go ahead, 44% of the country will have missed the deadline.

The problems were revealed by Nursing Times’ sister title Health Service Journal, which asked the commissioners responsible for 111 services about their readiness.

Most commissioners facing delays said it was due to concern about introducing a new service so close to the four day Easter bank holiday weekend which is usually one of the busiest times of year for NHS out of hours and emergency services.

Most areas expect to launch fully by mid April. However, in Cornwall, where the contract was awarded to NHS Direct, full launch has been delayed until 23 May. A handful of other areas, including Wiltshire, Bath and North East Somerset and Gloucestershire and Swindon, where the service will be provided by Harmoni, were unable to confirm planned go live dates.

Earlier this month Royal United Hospital Bath asked other local healthcare providers to call it ahead of referring patients due to the “extreme pressure” put on it by the launch of NHS 111, while Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust has also previously blamed the NHS Pathways call handling system for an increase in accident and emergency attendances.

The counties of Devon and Leicestershire and Rutland had previously been granted a three month extension to their introduction date.

The government has faced repeated calls to slow down the roll out after then health secretary Andrew Lansley announced in 2010 the service would be rolled out by 1 April 2013. As this date fell on Easter Monday the DH bought forward the launch date to March 21.

Health minister Earl 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 0845 4647 service will continue to be available to callers in areas where the NHS 111 service is in the process of being introduced.”

These are the areas where NHS Direct’s 0845 number will continue because the 111 service has not been fully launched:

Bath and North East Somerset & Wiltshire
Bedfordshire & Luton
Bristol, North Somerset & South Gloucestershire
Cambridgeshire & Peterborough
Gloucestershire & Swindon
Milton Keynes
North Essex
North of Tyne & Tees
SE Coast
South Essex
West Midlands

Readers' comments (2)

  • You cannot roll out a new health care phone service when it is not ready and not supported by enough medically trained staff. This will put patients and the public at risk.

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  • if there is a decision to provide a new service to replace an older one why was it not ready to roll out on the designated date? what excuses this time?

    sounds like yet another NHS half witted idea and downgrade in quality to save money and which they have difficulty putting into practice. hope this doesn't mean yet more wastage of tax payer funding which should be put into front line patient care.

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