Lansley denies NHS direct closure plan

The Health Secretary was accused of a climbdown today over plans to scrap NHS Direct.

Andrew Lansley said he had "not announced plans to scrap NHS Direct", just to phase out its telephone number.

This appears to contradict statements from the Department of Health last month, including to the BBC, which said the service would be scrapped.

The Department also confirmed many of the services offered by NHS Direct "may be subsumed" by the new 111 telephone service for non-urgent needs.

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition to save NHS Direct, which provides general health advice and information about out-of-hours GPs, walk-in centres, emergency dentists and 24-hour chemists.

Today, former health secretary Andy Burnham said Mr Lansley was "rowing back" from previous statements.

In a reply to Mr Burnham's inquiries about the future of NHS Direct, Mr Lansley wrote: "I have not announced plans to scrap NHS Direct. I have announced plans to phase out the NHS Direct number."

Later in the letter, he reiterates "we have not announced the closure of NHS Direct," adding: "I am aware that some people are claiming, incorrectly, that NHS Direct is to be shut down."

Today, Mr Burnham said: "Mr Lansley's own department confirmed to the BBC that it was planning to scrap NHS Direct - he now says all he wants to change is the phone number.

"NHS Direct is a much-valued service that saves the NHS money.

"This is a welcome climbdown and great news for the staff who work for NHS Direct and all of us who rely on it. It's an incredible victory for the campaign to save NHS Direct.

"I hope Mr Lansley will learn a hard lesson from this. Making casual off-the-cuff comments about services that people rely on is no way to run the NHS."

Around 27,000 people a day contact NHS Direct in some form for help and advice.

The new 111 phone number is currently being trialled in the North East.

The Royal College of Nursing said last month it would be "short-sighted" of ministers to axe expert nurses who had helped save the NHS more than £200 million by dispensing advice over the phone.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: "This is great news for patients and for staff at NHS Direct.

"The service that NHS Direct offers is tried and tested and is of great value to the public, as the outcry over the threat of closure shows.

"Andrew Lansley should not have put nurses and staff in fear of their jobs in this way.

"I am sure staff will still be confused and worried that the Government may have another change of heart.

"I would like a guarantee from the Health Secretary that the 1,300 nurses working for NHS Direct will still have a job there this time next year."