New NHS phoneline 'will put lives at risk': Doctors' warning after 111 number goes into meltdown
Callers put on hold for two hours or told to call back tomorrowService overwhelmed just a few hours after launch in some areasDoctors warn making service live nationwide from April will be 'dangerous'
23:34 GMT, 24 March 2013
11:46 GMT, 25 March 2013
Dr Laurence Buckman says April 1 is much too soon to introduce the new 111 service for the NHS
Lives will be put at risk unless the Government suspends the new 111 NHS advice line, doctors warned yesterday.
Patients have been left hanging on the phone for two hours or told to call back tomorrow because overstretched operators of the service were too busy to help.
The problems led to a surge in ambulance call-outs and casualty visits as the desperate dialled 999 for help instead.
The service, which is replacing NHS Direct and is being tested in different areas of the country, is due to go live nationwide on April 1.
Over the past fortnight, GPs have been told to change messages on their out-of-hours answer machines advising patients to call 111 for help.
But the change, which occurred with little publicity, immediately caused ‘meltdown’ in some areas, including Greater Manchester, Lancashire, south Cumbria, West Midlands and south-east London.
In Manchester, the situation was so bad the previous provider, Mastercall, had to take over the phones just hours after the launch to sort out the mess.
A group of nurses, who were on a night out, were even drafted in to staff the phones. The service has now been shelved in the city until the end of April.
Dr Laurence Buckman, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee, called for Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to suspend the nationwide launch of the NHS 111 service which he said was proving ‘dangerous’ in some areas.
‘Doctors are very worried patients’ lives will be put at risk when this is introduced in April,’ he added. ‘The concept behind NHS 111 – that patients simply have to call a single number to be told the most appropriate service for their needs – is not a bad one, but we’ve been saying for months that this April 1 date health authorities have been aiming for is much too quick.
The NHS 111 non-emergency number is due to be introduced in April but doctors have warned this could be 'dangerous'
‘It was obvious to us that many places weren’t ready and that’s when it becomes dangerous and bad things happen. I’m sadly waiting for the first body.
‘You end up with the wrong people getting into ambulances, GPs flooded with patients they don’t need to see, those who need to see a doctor not getting an appointment and A&Es full of people who shouldn’t be there.’
In a series of leaked emails, health bosses in Manchester admitted the system was a ‘catastrophe’ when it was ‘soft launched’ – or tested – for the first time on Thursday.
It is understood NHS bosses grossly underestimated the number of operators they would need to field calls, and the amount of time staff would need to analyse them. There were also problems with the service’s computer system.
The Government believes the system will save money by phasing out the 123million-a-year NHS Direct line and directing patients away from casualty units.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: ‘Until these issues are resolved people needing out of hours care should call their GP surgery during the evening and at weekends and follow the instructions given.
‘We are working with providers across the country to ensure all NHS 111 services are thoroughly tested and working effectively.’