NHS Direct is to close its call centres in Sheffield, Wakefield and Hull, with the loss of hundreds of nursing and other jobs, union leaders said today.
Unison said 24 out of 30 sites will close at the service, which employs 1,500 frontline nursing and other professional staff.
Sandra Maxwell, Unison’s convenor at NHS Direct, said: “Hundreds of dedicated nursing and NHS professionals are to be made redundant at a huge cost, when their skills could be used within the new NHS111 service if only the Department of Health took some decisive action.”
National officer Michael Walker said: “The Secretary of State for Health should step in and stop this disaster immediately. We need action and we need it now.
“Axing dedicated hard-working nurses is never a good idea at any time, but this will directly impact on patient care. There is no doubt that patients will suffer as a result of this move.”
Unison said large centres in Bristol, Sheffield, Wakefield, Nottingham, Hull, Stafford, Chelmsford and Newcastle were among those set to close.
“Given that many of these NHS call centres are in areas of high unemployment there are very real fears for the staff’s future job prospects.
“The Government spending millions on making nurses and NHS professionals redundant at a time when the NHS is under great strain is truly scandalous,” said a union spokesman.
An NHS Direct spokeswoman said the company had been bidding for contracts across England to provide the NHS 111 service, which is used when a patient needs medical help but it is not a 999 emergency.
The organisation has been awarded contracts to provide the NHS 111 services for 34% of the population in England.
She said the 111 service will be delivered from six of its 30 call centres.
“This does not necessarily mean we will be closing the other sites,” she said.
The organisation is waiting for some decisions by the NHS Commissioning Board before the future of the other centres will be decided, she added.
Every year, NHS Direct answers 4.2 million calls for health advice and information for patients in England.
Healthcare professionals, nurses, and dental advisers give expert information and advice over the phone and are available 365 days a year.
Nick Chapman, NHS Direct Chief Executive, said: “Press reports today that suggest NHS Direct has announced that it is closing a large number of sites are incorrect.
“We have not confirmed that any sites are closing. At this stage we have confirmed which sites we will be keeping open to deliver NHS 111 in the areas where we have been commissioned to provide the service.
“The sites are: Middlebrook, Carlisle, Dudley, Exeter, Milton Keynes and London.
“Home working will be an option for some of our nurses as an alternative to working from a site.
“The future of other NHS Direct sites has not been decided. We are in discussion with the Department of Health and the NHS Commissioning Board about the future of other non-111 services that we could be asked to deliver before making decisions.”
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “For a while we have said that the plans to replace NHS Direct with 111 are a mistake and will result in nothing more than a pale shadow of what NHS Direct is.
“We have always been huge supporters of NHS Direct and believe it has matured into a highly effective service providing tried and tested quality advice.
“Everyone must be made aware that the Government is effectively abolishing this vital service purely on a cost cutting basis. This is a foolish and ill conceived decision.
“Recently, an independent report of the new non-emergency NHS 111 service was released, and it showed that, where NHS 111 services had been piloted, the number of ambulance service incidents for NHS 111 triaged calls had increased.
“That adds further costs to the NHS and proves what a false economy it is to dismantle NHS Direct. This will only place increasing pressure on ambulances, A&E wards and GP surgeries, as the nurse-led self care and telephone advice service is effectively lost.
“Had the consultation on the future of NHS Direct been wider then I am confident that the public would have responded with a resounding ‘no’.”
NHS Direct confirmed that centres in Carlisle, Dudley, Exeter, Milton Keynes and Middlebrook, Bolton, will be used to provide the NHS 111 service.
One of three sites in Greater London will also be used, but it has not been confirmed whether it will be the site in Beckenham, the Ilford office, or the centre at NHS Direct’s head office in Leman Street, east London.
The future of the following sites are uncertain: Chesterfield, Derby, Hull, Mansfield, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Stockton, Wakefield, Blackburn, Kendal, Liverpool, Nantwich, Stafford, Bedford, Chatham, Chelmsford, Southampton, Ipswich, Norwich, Bristol, Ferndown in Dorset, and Truro.
An NHS Commissioning Board spokeswoman said: “We are working closely with NHS Direct to agree the future of easy to access information services for patients, when the NHS Commissioning Board takes over responsibility for these next April.
“These include online resources which patients can use to manage their care. We expect to announce the outcomes of these discussions in the new year.”