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Editor’s blog Thursday 9 September 2010: When is abolishing NHS Direct not abolishing NHS Direct?

When is abolishing NHS Direct not abolishing NHS Direct?

When it's just changing the phone number.

No, it's not very funny, is it? But then Andrew Lansley aspires to be seen more as a liberator than a stand-up comedian.

Lansley has replied to shadow health secretary and Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham, who wrote to Lansley accusing him of yesterday in the Commons misrepresenting Burnham's 2009 statement when Health Secretary.

Lansley's reply to Burnham states that he plans to phase out the current 0845 46 47 NHS Direct phone number, but that this does not involve abolishing NHS Direct.

The DH statement on the matter is clear that "NHS 111 telephone number will eventually replace NHS Direct when it is rolled out nationally and will provide a single point of access for all urgent care services".

Lansley's letter offers a large red herring in the guise of his specious suggestion that Burnham intended to run NHS Direct's extant phone number in parallel with the 111 that Burnham piloted. A more spectacular missing of the point it would be hard to imagine.

Which phone number is used is largely immaterial. Phone calls could be routed to a common 'front end' switchboard. A call to the 111 service, which aims to divert people from using A&Es or ambulances where better alternatives exist, can be transferred to the NHS Direct team at the flick of a switch by a 111 call operator.

The real question for Liberatin' Lansley is this. If, as Mr Burnham alleges, there is good evidence that NHS Direct is clinially effective and cost-effective in its current form, what changes to its staffing level and skill mix do Mr Lansley's reforms propose?

It also makes you wonder why Mr Lansley didn't simply say he was changing the phone number of NHS Direct.