Government confirms NHS Direct to be scrapped

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Medical helpline NHS Direct is to be scrapped as the new non-emergency phone number 111 is rolled out, it was disclosed today.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham criticised the move and the manner of its announcement - apparently via a slip of the tongue by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley during a hospital visit this week.

The Department of Health confirmed that NHS Direct, which is used by 27,000 people a day, would be replaced by 111 when the new non-emergency number is introduced nationally.

NHS Direct provides expert health advice and information to callers, as well as out of hours support for GPs and dental services, telephone support for patients with long-term conditions, pre- and post-operative support for patients.

A spokeswoman said "many" of the services offered by NHS Direct "may be subsumed" by the 111 service.

Providing health advice and information about out-of-hours GPs, walk-in centres, emergency dentists and 24-hour chemists, 111 is currently being trialled in the North-East.

Mr Burnham said: "NHS Direct is a valued service that helps tens of thousands of people every day and takes pressure off A&E. Over the last decade, it has played an important role in the improvements in patient care in the NHS.

"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.

"The manner in which this announcement has been made is quite simply appalling. It shows a total disregard for patients and the thousands of staff it will affect across the NHS.

"That the Health Secretary feels he can let slip such a major announcement smacks of the arrogance of a Government who believe they are above public consultation."

The Department of Health spokeswoman said: "When NHS 111 is rolled out nationally, it will replace the NHS Direct 0845 4647 telephone number.

"While NHS Direct will no longer exist as a separate phone number, many of the services provided by NHS Direct may be subsumed by the new NHS 111 service. 111 will give patients one easy to remember number to access non-emergency NHS healthcare wherever they are, 24 hours a day."

Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct, said: "NHS Direct is working hard with all of the local health communities involved in the three 'pathfinder' sites for NHS 111 to make these first tests of the new approach a success for patients and the NHS in their area.

"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.

"Currently, in the North East, NHS Direct is working with the Ambulance Service to handle any calls relating to health information or medicines inquiries.

"When the pathfinders in the East Midlands and East of England are launched we will be providing call handling, nurse assessment, health information and onward referral where necessary.

"The Government has announced their intention to eventually replace the current NHS Direct telephone number (0845 46 47) with the new 111 number. The more memorable number will clearly help patients find the new service more easily.

"NHS 111 is intended to work in an integrated way with local GPs, out-of-hours services, ambulance services and hospitals, for the benefit of patients and to help the NHS become more efficient."

Former deputy prime minister John Prescott has launched an online petition to save NHS Direct, attracting the support of more than 2,300 people since it was set up last night.

Mr Prescott has personal experience of the phone line after using it to get diagnosed with kidney stones on Christmas Day in 2006.

He is aiming to get 100,000 signatures for his petition - a figure which Prime Minister David Cameron said should trigger a Commons debate. Shortly after 3pm today, 2,312 people had signed.

"I've been inundated with messages on Twitter and Facebook from people who are appalled that the Government wants to axe NHS Direct and replace it with a cheap, inexperienced call centre," Mr Prescott said.

"Replacing trained nurses with degrees with people who've passed a 60-hour medical course is just madness.

"People have tweeted me how NHS Direct saved their lives, helped their babies and provided professional reassurance.

"During the last election, Cameron said on his famous airbrushed posters 'I'll cut the deficit not the NHS'. This move contradicts that commitment.

"So, as Cameron promised Commons debates if a petition reached 100,000, I'm calling on people to stand up and save NHS Direct."

The petition, which can be found at http://www.savenhsdirect.co.uk, calls on the coalition Government to "think again and Save NHS Direct for the good of the nation".

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