GP practices can continue to use 084 numbers if they obtain confirmation from their supplier that they are no more expensive than making a local call – and the main provider of such services to GPs will guarantee this, according to the BMA’s GP committee.

Latest guidance from the General Practitioner Committee states that the Department of Health has been assured by the main phone service supplier Network Europe Group, which supplies 084 telephony services such as Surgery Line, that call charges are no more expensive than making a local phone call.

The guidance has infuriated a campaigner against use of 084 numbers in the NHS, who claims it is impossible for any company to guarantee the rates for 084 numbers that can be charged by more than 200 different companies.

The GPC says that as long as the tariff is equivalent to local rates and the practice obtains a written guarantee from their supplier that they are charging rates in line with local geographic calls “they will be deemed to have fulfilled their medical services contract.”

The guidance, which applies in England only, goes on to state that any legal action to challenge this, for instance by a patient, would be against the primary care trust and not the GP practice.

David Hickson, a campaigner against use of 084 numbers in the NHS, claims no company could guarantee calls were the equivalent of a local call because patients used so many different telephone providers to contact their surgery.

He said his own research showed that those calling a Surgery Line 0844 number during the weekday daytime will pay more than the cost of an equivalent geographic call if using BT public payphones, any landline package from Virgin Media, any pay as you go or contract mobile phone from Vodafone, O2, Orange, T-Mobile, 3 and Virgin Mobile, BT Unlimited Anytime plan, and current landline tariffs offered by First, Phone Co-op, Pipex, Saga, Sky Talk and Tesco Home Phone.

He told EHI Primary Care: “Health Minister Mike O’Brien gave a promise in parliament yesterday (January 12) that by December 2010 no patient would be paying more than the cost of a local call to contact the NHS.

"If this is to happen then all Surgery Line users will need to change from 0844 to the equivalent 0344 number. This will enable them to retain their contracts with NEG and Talk Talk, whilst also respecting the DH requirements and the principles of the NHS."

The guidance from the GPC advises practices entering a new telecommunication contract to have a clause inserted allowing them to cancel the contract if the company is not using an appropriate call tariff.

However, it says the DH has been unable to persuade NEG to insert such a penalty-free get out clause into existing contracts.

The guidance adds: “If a practice is tied into a contract which does not comply with the new regulations it must remain with its telecommunications supplier until the contract terminates. Thereafter, it will be obliged either to ask for a revised contract from the same supplier which complies with the new regulations or to find another supplier.”

Practices will be expected to review the arrangements with their telephony provider annually, following the directions issued by the DH last month, which the GPC says should take the form of obtaining a written guarantee about call charges.

The GPC says practices should note that revenue sharing has not been banned by the government and that there are no intentions to draft regulations in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.