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.
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.”