Nurses and call handlers working for NHS Direct in the north east are facing an uncertain future, following a row over whether they should be transferred to work on the new urgent care number.
NHS 111 is due to replace the NHS Direct 0845 number from April 2013. Contracts to run the new service will be awarded on a local or regional basis.
The North East contract, the first to be awarded, went to a partnership between North East Ambulance Service Foundation Trust and GP out of hours provider Northern Doctors Urgent Care in January.
However, three months later 82 staff, including 41 nurses, working at NHS Direct’s two north east sites still do not know what is going to happen to them.
One NHS Direct nurse told Nursing Times some colleagues were already looking for alternative employment while others were worried they may be transferred out of the NHS to Northern Doctors, which is a social enterprise.
NHS 111 will be a slightly different service to NHS Direct, using fewer nurses and focusing on directing callers to the most appropriate local service. As a reuslt, normal employment rules governing staff transfers to new organisations – known as Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations – do not apply.
Following lobbying by NHS Direct, the Department of Health agreed that NHS 111 providers should be required to follow Cabinet Office guidelines in relation to NHS Direct staff. These offer a similar level of protection as TUPE but are not a legal requirement.
But the agreement came too late to be included in the original contract for NHS 111 North East meaning staff are in limbo and Nursing Times understands the new providers are reluctant to take their full quota of NHS Direct staff.
Unison NHS Direct representative Michael Walker said: “Despite reassurances from the Department of Health we still don’t know whether we have got jobs in the north east.”
Royal College of Nursing northern region director Glenn Turp told Nursing Times the situation was a result of the government rushing the introduction of NHS 111 without any consultation. He said: “The government has to take the lion’s share of the blame for this.”
Berenice Groves, programme director for the North East NHS 111 service at NHS County Durham and NHS Darlington, told Nursing Times discussions were taking place with the new providers about transferring staff.
She added: “Even though the cabinet office guidelines came in after the contract was awarded, as NHS Direct is part of the NHS family the desire is to work in that way.”