milksnatching plans may have been rapidly squashed by David Cameron a little while back, but it seems the proposal to scrap NHS Direct is getting the green light. The Guardian reports:
'The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has let slip that the government is planning to scrap NHS Direct, the hugely popular medical telephone helpline. While touring Basingstoke and North Hampshire hospital on Thursday, he revealed that the phone service – which this year cost £123m to run – is to be axed.
Until Lansley's apparent indiscretion, the official government line was that a new free telephone service, NHS 111, would not replace existing local telephone services or NHS Direct but might do so in the longer term if a pilot scheme is successful. The Department of Health has confirmed that NHS 111 would replace NHS Direct within three years. The new service is undergoing trials in County Durham and Darlington.
"When NHS 111 is rolled out nationally, it will replace the NHS Direct 0845 4647 telephone number," the department said yesterday. People can dial 111 to get health advice and information about out-of-hours GPs, walk-in centres, emergency dentists and 24-hour chemists. Although the new number is free, it is expected to be far cheaper to run than NHS Direct because it is likely to employ fewer medically trained staff. The department said it did not know how much NHS 111 would cost but admitted that it had a responsibility to save money.'
It's obvious the change is driven by cost-cutting, rather than by anything to do with effectiveness. The result will be a poorer service for the public.
Clearly the government is willing to take potentially unpopular decisions even when the amount of money involved is very small (£123 million is a tiny fraction of the NHS budget), so determined are they to slash public services. Are they going to claim NHS Direct of all things is 'wasteful' or 'inefficient'?
It makes a mockery of promises to safeguard NHS funding and protect 'frontline services'. I wonder what does count as a 'frontline service' in the minds of government ministers, if not a widely-used medical phone helpline and online service. It should send a clear warning that nothing is safe.
Surveys and polls have repeatedly revealed deep-seated commitment to the NHS. The government risks a backlash when it rolls back the most successful, and cherished, achievement of the post-war welfare state. This latest threat is part of a larger pattern of undermining the NHS and of unnecessarily cutting public services.
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