The NHS 111 service is being investigated in the South West following allegations that teenagers had been drafted in to take urgent calls and photographs emerged of “exhausted” medics asleep on duty.
A number of 17-year-olds were allegedly employed by the South West Ambulance Trust last year to meet call handling targets. They had been authorised to take patients’ names and details and to offer basic advice on locating chemists and health services, but ended up answering urgent calls, according to the Daily Mail.
The teenagers were said to be hardworking and there was no suggestion of wrongdoing.
The allegations regarding the teenagers follow separate claims that staff at the Dorset call centre are “overworked,” after photographs emerged of “exhausted” medics apparently asleep on duty. Former senior call manager Sarah Hayes told the Daily Mail the situation was “unsafe”.
This claim related to the same 111 service where a call handler failed to recognise that one-year-old William Mead, who died following a string of NHS failings, had sepsis caused by an underlying chest infection.
The South Western Ambulance Service Trust is launching its own investigation into both claims, while health watchdog the Care Quality Commission (CQC) is also carrying out an “early inspection” to investigate the allegations regarding the 17-year-olds.
The CQC will be interviewing staff at the service covering the Devon, Dorset and Cornwall areas as part of its inspection.
Deputy chief inspector Ruth Rankine said: “These allegations are unacceptable. We take them extremely seriously and are planning to carry out an early inspection to investigate.
“It is critical that patients using urgent and emergency care are assured it is safe, effective, caring, responsive and well-led.”
A spokesperson for the Trust stated there are a number of claims made by the Daily Mail that it “strongly refutes,” adding that patient care and safety are “top priorities” for the organisation.
“We are proud of the work that our staff deliver day in, day out, and are fully confident of the robust procedures we have in place around the NHS 111 service,” the spokesperson added.
Health regulator Monitor is aware of the allegations and understands the trust is “considering a review of some of the issues that have been raised,” a spokesperson said, adding that the watchdog will continue to work closely with the trust as it explores these issues and its possible review”.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "Patients rightly expect a safe service to be provided across the NHS, including through 111, with any allegations of wrong-doing fully investigated. We will make sure that happens."
Additional reporting by PAReuse content