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Out-of-hours GP helpline launch called off after trial causes chaos

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: March 24, 2013

George Osborne has links with Care UK, having appointed its former boss as an adviser

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The formal launch of the a new out-of-hours GP helpline covering the whole of the West was postponed yesterday after the service’s trial descended into chaos.

And with unions and ambulance bosses calling for the non-emergency service to be improved – after paramedics were called to people with hiccups and nosebleeds – campaigners have questioned the links between the Conservative Party and the private firm behind the farce.

The Western Daily Press began reporting last month about problems with a new “111” non-emergency number that is being “soft-launched” in Wiltshire and Somerset, and replaces both the out-of-hours services provided by individual GP surgeries and the national NHS Direct helpline.

Patients either had to wait hours for a doctor, or were sent an ambulance – even for minor ailments like a sore throat or hiccups, or for the long-term ill who merely required stronger painkillers overnight.

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The service in Wiltshire and Bath & North East Somerset was contracted out to the private firm Harmoni, part of the larger Care UK group. Last night, union leaders and health campaigners attacked Care UK and its links to the Conservative Party.

Care UK’s founder, John Nash, was appointed as an adviser to the Chancellor George Osborne after he left his position as chief executive, although he remains at Care UK as a consultant.

In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, Mr Nash’s wife donated £21,000 to the Conservative Party’s campaign, specifically the seat occupied by Andrew Lansley, who would become Health Secretary and push through the controversial NHS reforms that have now led to NHS contracts for Care UK.

In total, the Nashes have donated £203,500 to the Conservative Party nationally. “It is an absolute scandal, and one that rightly deserves to be highlighted,” said John Lister, from Keep Our NHS Public. “What is happening is Care UK and other private companies are getting these contracts and doing them on the cheap because they don’t care about the patients locally, in Somerset or Wiltshire say. Their only priority is the dividends to their shareholders.

“People are phoning up for medical advice and getting someone without medical training with a checklist of questions. They may as well phone me up or a random number in the phone book.”

Yesterday, the outgoing PCTs in Wiltshire and B&NES, along with the incoming clinical commissioning groups, which take over next week, signalled that Harmoni’s contract was still under review.

NHS bosses have come under pressure from colleagues at South West Ambulance Service, who complained that their call-outs were up 40 per cent, mainly to out-of-hours calls that were not actually emergencies. After a few weeks of running the service with a soft launch, it was due to be formally unveiled this week, something which has not happened.

A spokesman for the NHS in Wiltshire and B&NES said: “We will continue to work with the provider to ensure the contract is delivered to a satisfactory level as soon as possible and will continue to support Harmoni working with the other stakeholders to put in place all necessary contingency arrangements for the coming weeks.

“The organisations will keep the situation under constant review until we are satisfied that an optimal and sustainable level of service has been achieved,” she added.

As well as Wiltshire and B&NES, the 111 launch is also being delayed across the rest of Somerset, Swindon, Bristol and Gloucestershire.

A spokesman for Harmoni admitted there had been “some areas” where they were “yet to achieve” high levels of service, and the firm was working to address those issues. “This change in method has led to an initial increase in calls to the ambulance service,” the firm said. “As the new services are bedded in nationally, we expect the number of calls to the ambulance service to reduce over time.”

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  • MoeXXX  |  March 24 2013, 8:55PM

    A first-world country in the 21st century is permitting its politicians to conduct their personal business using taxpayers' money. Someone should hang for this.

    |   5
  • clover01  |  March 24 2013, 1:43PM

    I rang the Deane Doctor out of hours number on Friday night to be diverted to 111 service. Went through very long checklist procedure when feeling very ill. Told a nurse would ring back in 20 minutes. Call eventually came 8 hours later.

    |   5
  • FredofoffBath  |  March 23 2013, 6:22PM

    Exactly who was responsible for allowing this company to trial in the first place please?

    |   11
  • roly12345  |  March 23 2013, 2:34PM

    It seems we can add more to your statement rogerh3.. "Private companies win these contracts because they pay their staff less." ..and bung those in power some filthy lucre to grease the way. It beggars belief, that a business, with expectations of large profits and inflated remunerations for the top managers can undercut a not for profit organisation with years of experience and a plethora of skilled staff at its fingertips. Then again, did the NHS ever get the slightest chance of putting in a bid? I remember when the conservatives were last in power and there devious plan to push the NHS off the edge of a financial cliff, by increasing the bureaucracy by a whopping 300%. That wasn't, poorly paid, front-line, clerical staff, it was highly remunerated managers, who it seemed had the sharpest pencils in the building, which I should explain is a euphemism for, had sod all to do. While the NHS should never be considered beyond change, it should also never be considered that the resources we as a nation depend on so heavily, be farmed out to a commercial entity that hasn't got at its core, the ethos of "...do no harm", but rather, "do nothing until we're paid" I'd rather this country be run by Europe, with all its faults, than let the self serving toffs continue to monetise every facet of our lives, until we can no longer afford to live here. If the Smurfs were running the country and every organisation you had come to know was slowly disappearing, to be replaced by a more expensive and less useful business, wouldn't you question why they were all owned by blue skinned men?

    |   16
  • rogerh3  |  March 23 2013, 1:20PM

    Private companies win these contracts because they pay their staff less. It''s why the Min is closing its neuro-rehab service. The NHS is being privatised in bits, with private companies creaming off the most profitable parts first.

    |   23
  • DavidSMoore  |  March 23 2013, 1:05PM

    If Mr Lister, quoted in this article, charges the private care firms so, let him prove that their staff and owners and managers, really are uncaring people, more so than the next man. Perhaps an in depth study of this may have been done or should be???

    |   -10
  • bath1946  |  March 23 2013, 12:03PM

    nick, i don't know which surgery you use but my surgery with excellent GPs never had an out of hours service; where necessary you would be directed to a service run by a consortium of local practices to which my surgery would contribute. The Riverside which is being stupidly transferred to the RUH was the only central walk-in, out of hours surgery.

    |   3
  • bath1946  |  March 23 2013, 12:00PM

    nick, i don't know which surgery you use but my surgery with excellent GPs never had an out of hours service; where necessary you would be directed to a service run by a consortium of local practices to which my surgery would contribute. The Riverside which is being stupidly transferred to the RUH was the only central walk-in, out of hours surgery.

  • katachua  |  March 23 2013, 11:56AM

    Hooray! If I need medical help, I can be sure that the providers have donated significant sums to the Conservative Party! I feel better already...

    |   14
  • bath1946  |  March 23 2013, 11:50AM

    Instead of non-medically trained staff calling out the ambulance service, where there was a doubt NHS Direct transferred you to a qualified nurse. I fail to see how this system could improve upon that. Paramedics should only be called out for emergencies however this publicity will probably result in the non-medically trained staff taking an opposite stance resulting in genuine emergencies not receiving priority call outs.

    |   18