An independent inquiry is needed into the NHS non-emergency 111 phone line "debacle" in England, GPs say.
Doctors at the British Medical Association's GPs conference in London said lessons had to be learned after the "disastrous" roll-out of the service in recent months. The phone line - which has replaced NHS Direct - has been dogged by reports of calls going unanswered and poor advice. GPs said they had seen their workloads increase because of the problems. There are actually 46 different services across the country, run by a variety of organisations including private firms and ambulance crews. Some places have seen the service suspended, while others are relying on the support of old NHS Direct teams to deal with calls. GPs at the conference in London voted unanimously in favour of a motion calling for an independent inquiry over debacle.
John Hughes, a GP from Manchester, which saw its 111 system suspended soon after its launch, said the whole system was an "absolute mess". He said he had been told on the night it crashed in the north west the service had just 31 call handlers instead of the 100 GPs had been told it would. Others complained they had been deluged with paperwork from 111 and visits from confused patients who had not got the right advice from the phone line.
South London GP Lilian Awere said: "It has been successful in some places, but in most places it has been disastrous. The workload in A&E and for GPs has increased." But Mark McKenzie, a GP from Northamptonshire, said an inquiry did not go far enough. "I think it should be scrapped altogether," he added. NHS England has admitted the failings have been "inadequate", but has said the service is now improving. It is carrying out its own review into what went wrong.
The call comes as the BMA's GP chairman Dr Laurence Buckman launched an attack on Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He accused Mr Hunt of being more interested in bashing doctors and spouting "rubbish" after the health secretary blamed the rise in A&E waits on changes to the GP contract in 2004 which allowed GPs to stop providing out-of-hours care. Dr Buckman said there was no evidence that the changes, which led to agencies taking on responsibility for care, have been a major factor. And he added: "He [Mr Hunt] does not want to bother with the facts when he can have a bash at those of us who on his own admission are overworked and strained beyond endurance."
Dr Buckman's comments were made ahead of a speech on Thursday by the health secretary, which was trailed widely in advance, during which he unveiled plans for a chief inspector of GPs. Mr Hunt painted a picture of dysfunction across the GP sector, saying they were struggling to cope with demand. He also called for them to take more responsibility for out-of-hours care. He said this may include having to sign-off whether they are happy with the services available. "We have allowed ourselves to lose sight of the concept of the family doctor."