Bungling reforms to phone services came to a head today as unions revealed that the bulk of health helpline NHS Direct faces the axe, affecting thousands of patients and staff.
Health union Unison said that the health body could close 24 of its 30 call centres and dump half of the 1,500 front-line nursing and other professional NHS staff it employs.
And the union warned that there are real fears for workers' future job prospects as many of the affected call centres are in areas of high unemployment.
Large branches in Bristol, Sheffield, Wakefield, Nottingham, Hull, Stafford, Chelmsford and Newcastle are among the 24 sites that Unison claims could close.
NHS Direct chief executive Nick Chapman denied the union's claims. He said: "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."
NHS Direct has been bidding for contracts across England to provide the new cut-price 111 service, which offers patients advice provided by supervised non-medical staff.
The organisation says it has been awarded contracts to provide 111 for 34 per cent of the population in England, which will be delivered from six of its 30 call centres.
NHS Direct added that this did not necessarily mean it would axe the other 24 sites.
But Unison national officer for NHS Direct Michael Walker told the Star that the organisation had refused to confirm it would keep them open either.
He said: "If NHS Direct is keeping the other centres open what is it proposing to keep them open for when it has only won a third of the new contracts?"
Mr Walker added that NHS 111 was nothing but a "rebranding exercise" as a way to push through cuts and further privatisation, with private companies including Care UK taking over some of the services having recently acquired out-of-hours provider Harmoni.
The planned advice service under 111 has also been criticised for using less qualified personnel than current NHS Direct staff.
RCN general secretary Dr Peter Carter 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.
"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."
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