The use of expensive 084 numbers by GP practices has been banned by NHS England.

A letter from the national commissioning board sent to its local area teams yesterday says practices should “swiftly move away” from use of these numbers.

NHS England has been reviewing the use of 084 telephone numbers, which invariably cost more than equivalent calls to geographic numbers.

Their use has been a focus of controversy for several years.

GP contract revisions which came into effect in England and Wales from 1 April 2010 required GPs to take steps to ensure that their callers no longer paid more than the cost of an equivalent call to a geographic number. The deadline was 1 April 2011.

However, Fair Telecoms campaigner David Hickson calculates that they are still being used at around 700 English practices.

He said he is “delighted” with the outcome as the letter makes clear that there are “no excuses” for continuing use of 084 numbers.

The NHS England letter thanks the ‘fair telecoms campaign’ for helping it to “bust some myths regarding the use of 084 numbers”.

It says that providers of surgery telephone systems including Daisy Group, providers of the Surgery Line system, permit migration from 084 to geographic rate numbers at any time within the term of existing arrangements, without penalty.

This is therefore a “reasonable” step that a practice could take.

It also says that providing an 084 number as a higher cost alternative in parallel with a standard geographical option, “is an unacceptable misrepresentation of what is meant by ‘choice’ in the NHS” and the NHS does not offer distinct tiers of service based on ability to pay.

“Your Area Team will be in touch to understand your plans for swiftly moving away from the use of 084 numbers,” it concludes.

Hickson said he understands practices are under financial pressure, but most manage to provide a telephone service that charges no more than a geographic call.

“Picking the pockets of patients who are also hard up is not the answer,” he said.