Union says 30 nurses have already been replaced by non-qualified call-handlers

Tim Lezard

111UNISON has added to mounting calls for a delay to the launch of the 111 NHS helpline service, branding the new service  “disaster prone”, and saying a lack of qualified staff resulted in an ambulance crew being sent to help a patient with hiccups.

The switch from NHS Direct has already led to the loss of between 300 – 400 nurses, who have been replaced by non-qualified call handlers.

The 42 NHS 111 contracts were put out to tender last year and a significant number went to private company Harmoni (part of Care UK) which has led to problems and disruption across the country for patients, doctors and ambulance services.  The union is calling on the Department of Health to put patient safety first by delaying the transfer of the new system until it can be declared fit for purpose.

Michael Walker, UNISON Officer for NHS Direct, said: “Easter is traditionally one of the peak-times for NHS Direct.  It is a disgrace that around 200 nurses and 200 health advisers are being handed redundancy notices this week,  alongside 20 out of the 31 NHS Direct centres closing.  In the meantime many of these nurses are being asked to help clear up the chaos being caused by the switchover.  Where is the justice in that?

“All this is happening against the backdrop of this disaster-prone privatisation.  The switchover has already led to patients hanging on for hours to get help, ambulances called out to non-emergencies – such as a patient with hiccups – and GP surgeries inundated with calls from worried patients.   If ambulances are tied up with non-emergencies, this could lead to life-threatening delays in dealing with serious road traffic accidents.

“It is clear that the new 111 service is still a dangerous and costly experiment with many IT problems aggravating the situation and making it unfit for purpose.

“The Department of Health should call a halt, until patients can be sure of being given the right advice by staff qualified to do just that.  We need nurses at the heart of the service, where they can offer life-saving emergency advice.”

The switch to 111 is just one part of the massive NHS reorganisation coming in on April 1 as a result of the government’s Health and Social Care Act.  The hugely expensive and time-consuming exercise is leading to fragmentation, disorganisation and uncertainty for thousands of staff with the inevitable knock on to patient care.  The union continues to be highly critical of the privatisation agenda inherent in the Act.

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Tim Lezard

Campaigning journalist, editor of @Union_NewsUK, NUJ exec member; lover of cricket, football, cycling, theatre and dodgy punk bands

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