The Department of Health has today confirmed that they will prevent GPs, local surgeries and dentists from using national (0870 or 0871) or premium rate lines and they will expect these to be replaced by ‘lo-call’ rate numbers by April, with payments of £500 per practice on offer to cover lost revenue.

According to DH figures, 290 GP practices have numbers that charge up to 7.5p a minute, mainly used for appointment booking and repeat prescriptions.

Health minister John Hutton said: ""Sick people and their families should not be asked to pay over the odds to contact local NHS services. The use of premium and national rate telephone numbers is an unfair additional cost for many NHS patients. That is why we are taking this action today."

One advantage of using the numbers is that it gives patients one single point of contact that doesn’t change if the organisations move. However, practices and surgeries will now be asked to move to 0844 or 0845 numbers. The bar will be enforced through revised contracts for GPs and directions to NHS trust.

The ban will also apply to NHS dentists and NHS opticians, as well as out-of-hours services. It will not, however, apply to pharmacists.

Michael Summers, chairman of The Patients Association, said: "The Patients Association welcomes this announcement. Many patients were contacting us as calls were so expensive, particularly when surgeries were busy or engaged. This decision will be welcomed by patients generally."

In a statement, the BMA said they broadly agreed with the ban on national-rate numbers, but "by introducing 0870 telephone systems, practices will have benefited from improved equipment installed with the aim of ensuring patients were able to get through to the practice quickly, deliver their message or request speedily, and in general spend less time on the telephone than with previous systems."