NHS Direct- Andrew Lansley backtracks over closure
A political row has erupted after Andrew Lansley the health secretary was accused of making “a significant U-turn” over plans to scrap NHS Direct, in the face of widespread public anger.
Andrew Lansley said that NHS Direct would remain but that its telephone number would be replaced so that from 2013 people could call 111 for non-emergencies and 999 for emergencies.
“I have not announced plans to scrap NHS Direct. I have announced plans to phase out the NHS Direct number,” the health secretary said in a letter.
This appears to contradict statements from the Department of Health last month, including to the BBC, that said the service would be scrapped. The new 111 helpline is already being piloted in the north-east of England.
However, there are concerns that fewer medical staff will be employed by the new service. NHS Direct employs 3,400 people, 40% of whom are trained nurses. It was reported that the ratio for the new helpline would be lower.
The threat to the telephone service, which costs £123m a year to run, provoked an immediate backlash. In the fortnight since the story broke, 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.
Lord Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, played an active role in the campaign – including changing his Twitter picture to a “Save NHS Direct” badge.
Significantly, the Royal College of Nursing said it would be “shortsighted” of ministers to axe a service that had saved the NHS more than £200 million by dispensing advice over the phone.
Labour attacked Lansley for a “significant U-turn” that had seen the health secretary “rowing back” from previous statements. “It’s an incredible victory for the campaign to save NHS Direct,” said Andy Burnham, Labour’s leadership contender and spokesman for health.
A series of letters between Lansley and Burnham, the previous health secretary, reveals a combative exchange. Burnham accused his Tory counterpart of “misrepresenting his position” as Lansley claimed that the 111 number was Labour’s idea and he was “getting on with what you failed to do”.
In a statement the health secretary said: “This is the latest political stunt from [Burnham]. He seems more concerned with trying to boost his leadership campaign than discussing our policies accurately.”
Unions warned that the future of medical staffing levels in the new service would remain an issue. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: “Staff will still be confused and worried the government may have another change of heart. I would like a guarantee from the health minister that the 1,300 nurses working for NHS Direct will still have a job there this time next year.”
Despite its popularity, the medical establishment has been divided over the benefits of phone line. Earlier this summer British Medical Association chairman Dr Laurence Buckman said that getting rid of NHS Direct could be one way of cutting back on spending — adding that the “expensive” phoneline delayed healthcare reaching patients.
Tags: Andrew Lansley, BMA, Health Professionals, National Health Service, NHS, nhs cash shortages, nhs cutbacks, NHS Direct, RCN