During his time as Tory leader in opposition, David Cameron has been at pains to portray his party as the party of the NHS pledging to protect and increase spending on the British health service. Alongside that he highlights how he is a proud user of the service – his most recent child being born at an NHS hospital, his other children having been treated by the NHS. Coming into government, the talk so far has been of saving money by cutting back on bureaucracy, reducing management but leaving front line services in tact. However the inadvertent leak and subsequent official confirmation of the scrapping of NHS Direct calls that promise into question, or at least the Tory definition of a front line service. The Liberal Democrats similarly made a commitment not to cut front line services, so again, is this Nick Clegg (@nick_clegg) breaking a promise, or again do the Liberal Democrats have a different definition of a front line service?
What is even more galling about the whole announcement is that when you read the detail, they aren’t phasing out the nurse led medical helpline across the whole country. NHS24 and NHS Direct Wales the Scottish and Welsh versions of NHS Direct are continuing, it’s only in England that the nurse led helpline is being dropped in favour of the new NHS 111 service, a service where the staff on the phone will have sixty hours of training rather than nurses who have been through the same degree and level training as any other nurse working in the country. Essentially the English are being palmed off with a cut price imitation, whilst other parts of the UK continue with the full service.
It’s not as if this isn’t a popular service, it handles calls from 14,000 people a day and has been estimated to have saved other parts of the service hundreds of millions of pounds. Certainly on the occasions we’ve used it the choice was to phone NHS Direct, or pack the kids into the car for a trip to the local Accident and Emergency department. We have an out of hours GP service, but that is run by one person and when we have called it we have often had to wait a good while for a call to be returned. NHS Direct have always been a lot quicker in responding, and in a couple of situations where in the early hours of the morning we have been worried about a sick child have given us clear advice and saved us a trip to casualty. They’ve also given Beth advice when she was concerned over drug combinations when she has both been pregnant and also breast feeding – all advice that a telephonist with sixty hours training would not be allowed or qualified to give, and that the out of hours GP would just be too busy to provide. It seems doubtful if a call centre of primarily operators with a much reduced number of professional medical staff will be able to give the same level of service and support that for over ten years the English public have been getting, and the Scottish and Welsh public will continue to receive.
Following the announcement, discussion on Twitter has been taking place under the #savenhsdirect hash tag, and there is already a petition launched at http://www.savenhsdirect.co.uk/ – and there is already speculation that this change might go the way of the abolition of free school milk which was announced and then swiftly U-turned. It’s pretty clear that the axing of NHS Direct wasn’t intended to be announced just yet, so maybe we’ll have Andrew Lansley to thank in a few months for making another goof in letting the cat out of the bag so soon, and giving the Save NHS Direct campaign a chance to get going sooner rather than later!