Government confirms plan to scrap NHS Direct helpline
The government has confirmed it is planning to scrap the NHS Direct telephone service in England and replace it with an alternative service.
A new 1-1-1 helpline is already being piloted in north-east England.
It was previously reported that the new service may replace NHS Direct, but now the Department of Health has confirmed it will definitely do so.
The move comes as the government curtails public spending, even though it has promised to protect the NHS.
The change will not affect existing NHS helpline services in Scotland and Wales.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley announced the plan to scrap NHS Direct in England during a hospital visit this week.
NHS Direct currently employs more than 3,000 staff, 40% of whom are trained nurses. It is understood the ratio on the 1-1-1 helpline is "slightly less" in the pilot, but no figures are yet available for what will happen when the scheme is rolled out nationally.
Critics claim the change would undermine the quality of the service by reducing the number of qualified nurses answering calls, but chief executive of NHS Direct Nick Chapman told the BBC the new helpline would be better and more cost effective than NHS Direct.
He said: "More value for money doesn't necessarily mean that something will be worse. It will be a more seamless service."
He said the 1-1-1 helpline's telephone number would also be easier for callers to remember than the current NHS Direct one.
In June GPs urged the government to get rid of NHS Direct, claiming it was not cost effective.
The plan has provoked an angry reaction from Labour, with shadow health secretary Andy Burnham using it as evidence of what he claims is the government's intention to "dismantle" the NHS.
He said: "The health secretary's statement will stun people across the NHS.
"It is yet more evidence that Andrew Lansley is on a vindictive mission to break up the NHS, ruthlessly dismantling services before alternatives are in place."
Mr Burnham told the BBC that the government had shown "arrogance" and acted in a "cavalier" way by choosing to scrap NHS Direct without consulting the public.
He said the service saved the NHS £200m a year and played a key role in taking pressure off the health service.
He said: "It's been a proven success for a decade and simply to scrap it is no way to run the NHS."
Roughly 14,000 people a day call NHS Direct for medical advice, with the service costing £123m a year to run.
Former Labour health secretary Frank Dobson, who helped establish NHS Direct in 1998, told the BBC the decision to replace the service was "crackers," and said the professionally staffed advice line would be replaced with a "call centre".
His views were echoed by former deputy prime minister, Lord Prescott, who urged the public to sign an online petition he initiated to save the helpline.
He said people would lose trust in using the new service if it was staffed by fewer qualified nurses.
He told the BBC: "It will be a lesser service determined by saving money.
"(The government) told us they would cut the deficit, not the NHS. This is another promise broken."
Staff will be 'devastated'
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of The Royal College of Nursing , said reducing the number of specialist nurses who worked on the new helpline was "short-sighted."
He said: "We urge the government to consult fully and look at all the evidence before enacting changes which could leave people without expert advice from trained nurses."
Gail Adams, head of nursing for the public service union Unison, told the BBC that NHS Direct staff would be "devastated" by news that the service was to be scrapped.
She said the service's success was based on "compassionate nurses providing sensitive care," and that less qualified staff could not offer the same level of expertise and reassurance to the public.
BBC political correspondent Arif Ansari said NHS Direct had a "mixed record," with critics complaining that its staff were too cautious in their advice to callers.
"There are people who have used NHS Direct and say they did not get a lot from it," he said.
Mr Ansari said GPs were unhappy that many callers were unnecessarily referred to their local hospital when they did not require treatment there.
Mr Chapman said staff involved with the 1-1-1 helpline "pathfinder" in north-east England were currently working with the local ambulance service to handle calls relating to health information or inquiries about medicines.
He said the service would also be tested in the East Midlands and in the East of England, where helpline staff would also assist with nurse assessment, health information and referrals.
"When detailed plans are made to roll out the service nationally, we hope NHS Direct staff will be able to contribute their experience to the new service," he said.