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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Ban on use of 084 telephone numbers in the NHS confirmed in parliament

Many GPs and NHS bodies are failing to comply with the ban on the use of 084 numbers for patients to contact the NHS. They have been pretending that the ban does not apply to patients calling from mobile phones or public payphones.

Calls to ALL 084 numbers from mobile phones and public payphones are invariably more expensive than equivalent calls to geographic rate (01/02/03) numbers. See published provider tariffs and summary, showing that the same is true for many landline callers also. This fact is rarely denied, some pretend that it is not relevant!

This pretence was most "clearly" dismissed in parliament yesterday by Health Minister Anne Milton. In answers to questions, she said -

"Since April this year, GPs have not been allowed to use a number that charges patients more than the cost of an equivalent geographical call."

"It is absolutely clear that there is no distinction between landlines, mobiles or payphones. The directions are very clear that patients should not expect to be charged any more."

"The Department is very clear, and the general medical services contract makes it very clear, that GPs are not allowed to do this."

NHS Campaigner David Hickson comments:

"This unambiguous clarification of some very simple words should cause those who have been seeking for PCTs to misunderstand their duties to change their approach.

"I call on the BMA GPC and Network Europe Group to admit defeat in their attempts to get the principle of co-payment introduced to the NHS. They should aim to assist GPs in working to provide the best possible service to patients UNDER THE TERMS OF THE NHS. Their argument, that patients should pay for an improved NHS service as they use it, was rejected in September 2009.

"PCTs have the clarity that they have been waiting for. They can now easily dismiss attempts to fudge the terms of the requirements. If GPs are under contract for a system which requires a non-geographic number, they can switch to the equivalent 034 number at any time.

"There is no reason why the NHS could not be free of the need to call 084 numbers within a few months. All NHS Bodies are subject to the same Directions as GPs. Even NHS Direct, exempted from the ban, can adopt 0345 4647 as a clearly, but gently, advised alternative to 0845 4647 for the remainder of the life of the service."

Further points

The Department of Health only covers the NHS in England. The Welsh and Scottish Governments should note and copy this action.

It is now time for the Cabinet Office to direct all public bodies to follow the same approach. The only exceptions may be cases where it is valid to impose what Ofcom calls a "Service Charge" on those who access public services by telephone. The charge should be declared, explained and justified in all cases where 084 or Premium Rate telephone numbers are used.

Bodies such as HMRC and the DWP agencies can avoid the initial cost and confusion of a complete number change by adopting the 034 equivalents as alternatives to all of their many published 084 numbers. The present imposition of a “Service Charge” for telephone enquiries from Tax Credit and benefit claimants, jobseekers and pensioners surely cannot be justified!

Please refer to my briefing PCTs failing to understand DH Guidance, for detail, references and links. I cannot say what part this publication played in informing the exchanges in parliament.

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