The Department of Health has no immediate plans to ban use of 084 numbers in the NHS, health minister Ben Bradshaw has indicated.
In a letter to Rob Marris MP, the health minister gave no indication that the use of such numbers by GP practices and organisations such as NHS Direct would be prohibited.
Instead he told the MP, who has been campaigning against the use of 084 numbers by the health service, that the DH was currently analysing the information from a data collection exercise on the use of 084 numbers by the NHS.
He added: “In time we will publish guidance about how primary care trusts can ensure that patients are able to access their GPs or other NHS organisations via the best possible service, without placing additional costs on them.”
The health minister’s letter has been criticised by 084 campaigner David Hickson, who described it as a “wholly unsatisfactory response”. More than 1,000 GP practices and NHS Direct use an 084 number.
He added: “This clearly means that patients will simply be made aware of how they can use the internet to book appointments with their GP or hospital and to access health advice from NHS Direct, so as to avoid paying premium telephone charges.
“I must doubt that this will be accompanied by an announcement of how all NHS patients will be provided with free computers and internet access, along with all necessary assistance for those unwilling or unable to use this technology.”
However Rob Marris told EHI Primary Care that he believed the planned DH guidance was just an “interim stage” in moves towards banning 084 numbers in the NHS.
He added: “I think 084 numbers will go across government eventually but it is going to take quite a long time. The broad proposition that the health service should be free at the point of need has cross party support.”
In an adjournment debate earlier this year, Marris was given a “cast iron guarantee” by health minister Ivan Lewis that the government would not allow NHS Direct to use an 0845 number when its contract comes to an end.
However, in his letter, Bradshaw said that NHS Direct would “retain its current number until we have achieved clarity on its future role and function in implementing a national 3-digit number for urgent care.”
Marris said he did not believe NHS Direct should use an 0845 number. He added: “If your child is sick and you want to phone up in the middle of the night because you are worried they might have meningitis you shouldn’t have to pay for that service.”
Hickson has now written to nearly 100 MPs to raise his concerns and claims that there is no indication that NHS Direct will ever use the 03 non-geographical number reserved for its use.
He adds: “There is no justification for continuing to subject NHS patients to access fees for NHS services that are not sanctioned by parliament, for one day longer.”