GP warnings over NHS 111 'not ignored', says health minister

Health minister Lord Howe has denied ignoring GPC calls for the roll-out of NHS 111 to be slowed down to avoid putting patients at risk.

Lord Howe: GPC warnings on NHS 111 'were not ignored'
Lord Howe: GPC warnings on NHS 111 'were not ignored'

The government's House of Lords health spokesman added that NHS officials were 'looking closely at the GP contract' following high profile concerns over pressure on A&E.

Speaking in an emergency debate in the House of Lords following the collapse of NHS Direct’s 111 services, Lord Howe said the government had listened to GPC concerns that providers were not ready to roll out the service this spring.

The minister told peers: ‘We did not ignore the warnings from Dr [Laurence] Buckman and others in the BMA. Indeed, on the strength of that we allowed a six-month extension to those providers who felt they needed it to ensure that they were confident in providing a good service. Only two providers took us up on that, which seemed to indicate that our confidence in the service was not misplaced.’

Labour health spokesman, Lord Philip Hunt, said it was on the coalition’s watch that the service, ‘staffed by unqualified call handlers’, put patients at risk.

Why, he asked the minister, did he ‘reject a plea from Dr Buckman, then chair of the BMA GP committee, for the rollout of 111 to be slowed down because of risk to patient safety?’

Lord Hunt called for all official advice to ministers on the roll-out to be made public.

NHS Direct, the largest NHS 111 provider, said on Monday it would hand back all 11 contracts it had been awarded to provide the phone triage service, as they were ‘financially unsustainable’.

The trust said it was spending around £13 per call to cover staff costs, but received between £7 and £8 per call from CCGs.

GPC chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the announcement revealed 'worrying flaws' in NHS tendering and contracting processes.

But NHS England, which is overseeing the service and transition of NHS Direct’s contracts, said CCGs would have to retender.

Ministers are understood to favour ambulance trusts to take over the contracts in the interim. Lord Howe told peers the service was not unsafe. ‘In the vast majority of the country it has been provided very well for patients. We were confident that the service could be provided well, and so it has proved,' he said.

‘The isolated cases where the service has fallen short are highly regrettable, but there is no issue about the quality of NHS Direct’s provision of NHS 111. I am afraid the issue there is that it got its sums wrong and cannot provide the service economically.’

Crossbench peer, Lord Laming, asked if, in the light of pressure on urgent and emergency care, the minister would renegotiate the GP contract.

Lord Howe responded that ministers were ‘obviously looking very carefully at the GP contract’, but were only at the start of the process.

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