NHS Direct loses bids to run new ‘111’ helpline contracts

Chief executive’s leaked e-mail warns NHS Direct staff of uncertain future

By David Hencke | 19 June 2012

“In areas where bid outcomes are known, we are working closely with the providers to work out exactly what this will mean for staff” – Nick Chapman, chief executive, NHS Direct

NHS Direct is losing out to private companies competing to run new 111 helpline services across England, a leaked internal document reveals.

The chief executive of NHS Direct, Nick Chapman, sent an e-mail to staff to say that the health-helpline service had become “preferred bidder” in only three areas so far, but had lost out in another 20.

Exaro has obtained a copy of the e-mail, which makes clear that NHS Direct faces being decimated, leaving members of staff uncertain about their future.

Chapman writes: “These three areas account for just under four per cent of England’s population in total.”

He continues: “We also know now that in 20 other areas of the country, covering just under 30 per cent of England’s population, NHS Direct has not been selected as the preferred provider.”

Andrew Lansley, health secretary, decided to replace NHS Direct with locally provided services, putting contracts for each area out to tender.

The prime minister, David Cameron, last October announced the launch of the free 111 service, which is being rolled out area by area across the National Health Service. It is intended to be a single contact point for non-emergency care outside normal surgery hours.

Chapman’s e-mail shows that NHS Direct has so far been beaten by private companies, social-enterprise companies run by doctors, or NHS trusts in seven areas. It did not even bid in a further seven areas.

Chapman tells staff: “In some cases, we have not bid to provide the NHS 111 service. This was for one of two reasons: where there was a clear preferred provider and the likelihood of winning was too low to justify putting in a bid; or where additional services outside our capabilities were required, eg a face-to-face service in addition to 111, and suitable partners were not available.”

Pilot schemes are being carried out in another six areas, none of which is being conducted by NHS Direct, he says.

NHS Direct is carrying out trials in three other areas.

The e-mail – sent a fortnight ago – sets out the progress of bids so far. And it highlights NHS Direct centres where staff could be hit.

“But nothing is final at this stage,” Chapman writes.

“In areas where bid outcomes are known, we are working closely with the providers to work out exactly what this will mean for staff, and we shall be speaking to you individually as soon as we know more.”

He tries to strike an upbeat note about the three areas where NHS Direct is the preferred bidder. “This is clearly good news,” he writes, adding: “It is important to understand that being the preferred provider is not the same thing as saying that we shall deliver the NHS 111 service in these areas, but it is the first step towards this.

“No contracts have yet been signed, and there is still a lot of work to be done to agree the final contracts before we start delivering the service.”

Two of the three areas are identified as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and Somerset.

Exaro today publishes the e-mail in full.

Chapman requested a six-month delay to tendering bids for some of the contracts. The government last week said that next April’s deadline for bids could be pushed back to October 2013.

A spokeswoman for NHS Direct said: “It is too early for us to comment on whether NHS Direct is losing out in the bidding process because there are many bids to come, and the information is commercially sensitive.

“We would not want to speculate on the final outcome, but it is important that staff where rival bidders win will be safeguarded by being transferred to the new organisation.”

Simon Burns, health minister, defended the changes, saying in a statement: “There is strong support for the new service across the NHS.

“Patient safety is a key priority, and NHS 111 call advisers have to complete a six-week training programme which is exactly the same training as 999 operators. They are supported by trained, experienced nurses who are always on hand to take over if the caller needs to speak to someone with clinical skills.”

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