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Health dept puts off NHS 111 helpline roll-out for 6 months

Avenue for non-urgent problems not urgently needed

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The government has extended the deadline for the roll-out of NHS 111 to make sure areas have enough time to plan for the service.

The announcement follows criticism of 111 by the British Medical Association and other unions, as well as pressure from clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and private firms.

In a letter to CCGs (PDF) Jim Easton, national director for improvement and efficiency at the Department of Health, says that after careful consideration and having sought the views of senior CCG representatives, an extension of up to six months of the original April 2013 deadline may be necessary in some cases.

"That extension will be by application to an expert clinical panel, and should not delay roll-out in those areas that are ready to move ahead," says the letter. "It will however, help ensure that in those areas that need it, time can be taken fully to engage local clinicians and build delivery models for NHS 111 that have the support and endorsement of all local stakeholders."

It goes on to say that the clinical panel will publish the criteria on which it will judge applications shortly. CCGs that want their areas to be considered for an extension should submit an application in writing to their strategic health authority.

At the end of last month, Capita expressed concerns about the 111 tender process and said it was not constructed "to result in cost-effective services that can flex to dynamic needs of the public". Around the same time, Serco and Care UK confirmed that they had taken the decision not to bid in the multimillion pound replacement programme to provide a new 24-hour urgent care service.

Despite these concerns, a number of areas are moving ahead with their 111 plans, including Wandsworth and Suffolk primary care trusts, which recently awarded care services specialist Harmoni a contract to operate its services.

With the help of NHS Direct and NHS Choices, the department is currently trialling an NHS 111 online service as part of a plan to provide a service to complement locally-driven telephone services.

Commenting on the government's announcement to extend the deadline, Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct, said that the period of transition from the 0845 number to the new NHS 111 service is now likely to take longer.

He said: "NHS Direct believes that the DH's decision to allow further time to plan and implement these national changes to the urgent and emergency care service is the right one. It will allow for greater clinical engagement and ensure that the service is the best it can be for patients.

"As we understand it, the next step is for local commissioners who want an extension to make an application to the DH. We won't know until these applications have been made how many areas will request an extension, and what implications that may have for the 0845 service and for NHS Direct staff."

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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