The telephone health advice service, NHS Direct, is to close most of its call centres with the loss of hundreds of nursing jobs, unions have claimed.
The service is being replaced from next April by the new non-emergency telephone number NHS 111, which will be run with call centre workers in place of nurses.
Unison national officer Michael Walker said: “The Secretary of State for Health should step in and stop this disaster immediately. Axing dedicated hard working nurses is never a good idea at any time but this will directly impact on patient care.”
The aim is to save on the £123 million a year cost of NHS Direct which was launched in 1998 in a move to take pressure off the emergency services.
A spokesperson for NHS Direct said the company had been bidding for contracts to run NHS 111 services across England. It had been awarded contracts for a third of the population which would be run from six of its 30 call centres.
Nick Chapman, NHS Direct chief executive, denied the company was closing the remainder of the sites. “The future of the other sites has not been decided. “
Discussions were continuing with the Department of Health and the NHS Commissioning Board about other possible services the sites could deliver, he said.
Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said NHS 111 would be a “pale shadow” of NHS Direct, which provides advice to patients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Everyone must be made aware that the Government is effectively abolishing this vital service purely on a cost cutting basis. This is a foolish and ill-conceived decision.,” he said.
An NHS Commissioning Board spokeswoman said: "We are working closely with NHS Direct to agree the future of easy to access information services for patients, when the NHS Commissioning Board takes over responsibility for these next April.”