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Non-urgent phone number may be introduced

A consultation on a new national three-digit number – 111 – that will make it easier for patients to access urgent care wherever they are was launched by Ofcom today.

In the final report on his review of the NHS, Lord Darzi recommended that the NHS continue to explore options for a single national three-digit number providing access to advice and information on non-emergency care. Asking Ofcom to consult on providing a number is the next stage in the process.

The new number, 111, will not replace existing local telephone services or NHS Direct; it will provide patients with an additional choice in how they find urgent care. In the long term, 111 could become the single number to access non-emergency care services in England, including NHS Direct. 999 will remain the number to call in an emergency situation.

Health Minister Mike O'Brien said: "Patients have told us that they need clear, easy advice on how to find healthcare when they don't need to go to A&E and we have asked Ofcom to consult on making a new national 111 number available for them.

"The NHS already provides a range of urgent care services. The memorable 111 number will support these services and provide more choice for patients to find the care they need.  This will be particularly useful outside of GP surgery hours and for people who are away from home."

The NHS across England offers a range of options for accessing urgent, but non-emergency, care.  Services such as walk-in centres, out-of-hours phone and GP services and minor injuries units mean patients now have more choice than ever before when they need urgent care.  However, patients are not always sure where to go for treatment when they need medical help urgently, but the situation is not life-threatening, especially when away from home.

If the Ofcom consultation finds that a three-digit number should be allocated, pilot schemes will be launched later this year to identify the best model for the number. The Department of Health is working closely with the NHS to make sure any new number, which is introduced, complements existing services.

Ofcom consultation

Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

"Many will continue to pay premium rates to call NHS Direct on 0845 4647, which delivers revenue share income of £1m per annum. Until this has been replaced by 111, an alternative number must be made available. The new (111) number must be priced bearing in mind that patients must not be paying NHS providers for NHS services and telephone companies must not be profiteering at the expense of the NHS. Whatever the fair rate that is set there is no justification for excluding 111 from inclusive call packages." - David Hickson, London