The government has extended the roll-out deadline for NHS 111 amid concerns that the urgent care number is increasing pressure on health services.

The government had set a deadline for commissioners to have the service rolled out across England by April 2013, but they will now be able to apply for an extension of up to six months.

Jim Easton, national director for improvement and efficiency, has written a dear colleague letter explaining that the rollout deadline has been extended.

“I remain confident that we can deliver lasting improvements for patients and the NHS through the delivery of NHS 111 to provide a single point of access for patients with urgent care needs,” he says.

“However, after careful consideration, and having sought the views of senior clinical commissioning group representatives and other stakeholders, we believe that an extension of up to six months of the original April 2013 deadline may be necessary in some cases.”

Easton says the extension will be by application to an expert clinical panel, and should not delay roll-out in those areas that are ready to move ahead.

“It will however, help ensure that in those areas that need it, time can be taken fully to engage local clinicians and build delivery models for NHS 111 that have the support and endorsement of all local stakeholders,” he explained.

A number of organisations have called for the government to adopt a “flexible” deadline for the roll-out of NHS 111, raising concerns that the helpline is increasing the burden on ambulance services, A&E departments and GPs.

In February, General Practitioners Committee chairman Dr Laurence Buckman wrote to health secretary Andrew Lansley outlining a number of “serious misgivings” about the project.

The letter said the procurement process in non-pilot areas was being rushed, leaving clinical commissioning groups with little input or choice of provider.

An official BMA statement said the organisation welcomed the government’s announcement.

In the statement, Dr Buckman said the principle behind NHS 111 – making patient access to urgent NHS services easier – was a good one, but the speed of the roll-out was putting this at risk.

“Hopefully now there will be sufficient time to ensure local clinicians are properly involved so services can be designed that will be safe, reliable and genuinely benefit patients,” he said.

However, joint chairman of the BMA and RCGP’s joint IT committee, Dr Paul Cundy, said the extension did not go as far as the profession had been hoping for.

“The profession would prefer much more assessment before it’s rolled out,” he said. “The evidence that’s coming from it is very mixed. There are a lot of areas where it’s having an adverse impact on the local health economy.”

EHealth Insider reported this week that since the pilots began, there has been a 17% increase in people presenting at urgent care and walk in centres across England.

NHS Alliance chief executive Rick Stern said the extension “acknowledges the importance of local decision-making, in response to requests from local CCG leaders."

He said CCGs need to learn from the results of the full evaluation of NHS 111 being carried out by Sheffield University.

The new clinical panel will publish the criteria that it will judge applications on shortly.

CCGs can submit an extension application in writing to their SHA Cluster Senior Responsible Officer, who will then pass this onto the panel by 27 July.