From the TUC

Cuts Watch #239: NHS Direct (part 2)

13 Sep 2010, by in Cuts Watch

NHS Direct, the helpline and website, seems to have been reprieved, but there are still unanswered question about the quality of the advice it will offer. Last month we reported that NHS Direct was to be replaced within 3 years by a 111 ‘non-emergency’ phone line, staffed by “call advisers” with limited training, instead of the qualified nurses used by the current service.

Then on Thursday Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, wrote to Andy Burnham to say that there had never been any plan to scrap NHS Direct, just to change the phone number:

“I have not announced plans to scrap NHS Direct. I have announced plans to phase out the NHS Direct number.”

Move along … nothing to see here.

But, at the time, the BBC reported that the Department of Health had confirmed this story to them, and a Press Association story indicates that they weren’t alone:

This appears to contradict statements from the Department of Health last month, including to the BBC, which said the service would be scrapped.

This careful wording (repeated* in more than 80 different newspapers’ and blogs’ coverage) may indicate that journalists were briefed on basis of some level of confidentiality. But the enjoyable hoo-ha about whether the government has performed a U-turn and whether they confirmed the cut initially risks clouding a more important issue.

John Prescott’s Save NHS Direct campaign is asking the most important question: what is going to happen to the quality of the service? The point about the initial story wasn’t that the name “NHS Direct” would be lost but that a service staffed by trained nurses would be replaced by one staffed by operators who’d gone through a 60-hour training course. I speak with some self-interest here – my family used NHS Direct just last week, and the calm and reasonable advice we got helped us avoid lying awake worrying all night.

That quality of service depends upon the experience and training of its staff – it’s a good example of the way in which job cuts for staff also mean quality of life cuts for everyone else. That’s why I was cheering on Dave Prentis, UNISON General Secretary, when he said:

“I am sure staff will still be confused and worried that 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”.


* Google for “appears to contradict statements” and “NHS Direct”.