HC Deb 04 May 1999 vol 330 cc685-6
1. Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford)

How many people are covered by NHS Direct; and what is his programme for expansion. [81807]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)

Following the success of the three pilot schemes, NHS Direct has been extended to cover around 20 million people. By December this year, a further 10 million people will have access to this highly successful new service, which will cover the whole country next year.

Mr. Hall

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome his announcement that Bedford will be home to a new NHS Direct call centre in the autumn of this year. Will Bedfordshire benefit from Sheffield university's evaluation of the early experience of NHS Direct, particularly with regard to local publicity and the apparent under-use of the service by those over 65? Will my constituents benefit from NHS Direct outreach and the proposed new information points?

Mr. Dobson

We were determined from the start to ensure that we learned from the pilot schemes in the gradual extension of NHS Direct. That is why we established the pilots. We have made every effort to ensure that the system expands as quickly as is sensible and that the initial volume of calls can be coped with, gradually building up so that the staff can learn from experience. A surprisingly low proportion of calls have come from old people, although some old people have called. We shall extend the publicity to try to ensure that enough old people are aware of the service. On the first day of operation in west Yorkshire, a call came in from an old lady who said that she was just ringing to make sure that the service would be there when she needed it.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

How does the Secretary of State expect the necessary staff to be employed and retained in NHS Direct and everywhere else in the health service when twice in a week the Government have broken their word to the two largest groups of employees in the health service? On 1 February, the Government promised that the recommended pay increases for nurses would be paid in full from 1 April. Most, if not all, NHS nurses have received no additional pay in their April pay packets and may not receive it until September. Today we hear that, having agreed a few years ago that junior hospital doctors would work for only 56 hours a week, the Government are proposing in Europe that they should be allowed to work for 65 hours a week. Do the Government not realise that they cannot save the NHS when they are undermining its key groups of staff?

Mr. Dobson

All that I can say in response to that question, which was allegedly about NHS Direct, is that we have had no difficulty in recruiting nursing staff, including disabled staff, to serve at NHS Direct. I expect that trend to continue. The service is very popular. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the working time directive. The Government have no intention of increasing the hours of work of a single junior doctor in the United Kingdom. We are still committed to implementing the new deal for junior doctors' hours, which we inherited from the previous Government. About 15 per cent. of junior doctors still work longer than those hours. We want to get those hours down. We are also making provision for better sleeping and feeding arrangements. My hon. Friend the Minister of State had a sensible and worthwhile meeting with junior doctors about those issues last week.

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