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Friday, 11 September 2009

Expecting an imminent announcement by the Department of Health

Pending an imminent announcement of the outcome of the consultation by the Department of Health into a proposal to ban use of revenue sharing 084 telephone numbers in the NHS, I have circulated the following comments indicating my hopes and expectations for this announcement.

I must express my hope that it will properly addresses the issue covered in my comments - NHS GPs using 0844 numbers can change to 0344 [1]. The other key issue to which I have repeatedly referred is the need for NHS Direct, unable at this time to comply with a ban, to immediately introduce 0345 4647 as an alternative working in parallel with 0845 4647 [2].

I will react as best I can to whatever is said, hoping to do so in a spirit of congratulation and rejoicing at a reaffirmation of the principles of the NHS, as they apply to all providers of NHS services. We will await a definition of what is understood to be “NHS services” and how far any ban will extend to those who also provide other services, such as NHS Hospitals, GPs, Dentists and Pharmacies [3].

A ban on the use of 084 telephone numbers must address the simple fact of revenue sharing, which applies to them all. It must not be confused by reference to the often perverse means by which telephone companies raise the money to provide the revenue share through complex tariff structures. Any repetition of the concept of “the cost of a local call”, as used in current guidance, would cause any regulatory prohibition to be utterly worthless as this has no meaning in general terms.

The relative costs of different types of calls vary between providers, between different tariffs and even between times of the week and day. With reference to one widely used tariff, calling any revenue sharing number would be cheaper for some than a local call for some during weekday daytimes, but not in the evening or at weekends, yet for others it would be invariably much more expensive. On some tariffs, subscribers benefit from free calls to local numbers at all times, but may need to access NHS services outside their “local” telephone charging area. I do hope that we are not going to have to get into this type of nonsense [4].

Given that the Department of Health has been working on this issue for over 18 months, since an “evidence gathering” exercise began in January 2008, there can be no excuse for not getting all of the detail right. One must hope that the four numbered specific matters to which I refer above have not been overlooked, and if so, that they will be addressed before a public statement is published.

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