Monday, 23 August 2010


The BBC reports this morning that trials of a new non-medical number are being launched in the North East:

Trials of a three-digit telephone number for those needing non-emergency medical care in England have been launched in the North East.

NHS County Durham and Darlington Primary Care Trusts are to pilot the free 111 number, to act as an alternative to 999, followed by Nottingham, Lincolnshire and Luton.

Although initially a trial it seems clear that there's an intention for it to replace the current system NHS Direct:

The government service will not initially replace NHS Direct, but may do so in the longer term if successful.

If so, it will be available nationwide.

The BBC goes through the obligatory pros and cons of the new system, including this salient point:
...we are concerned this new phone number means the public have to make life or death decisions about whether their situation is a medical emergency.

"We welcome the pilots and would like them to raise awareness and educate the public on when to call 111 or 999."

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, we have this from 2009:
How can victims of crime get assistance in the EU? Who should EU citizens call if they need non-urgent medical help or advice? New helplines like these should be available soon throughout the EU thanks to a decision taken by the European Commission today. It reserves two new "116" numbers for services of social value. The helpline numbers 116 006 and 116 117 will be reserved for victims of crime and for citizens calling non-emergency medical services across the EU.
Well well. It's no surprise really as telecommunications is an EU competency, for example, there's the EU emergency number 112, 116 123 diverts to the Samaritans, and this Directive led to the abolition of 192 directory inquiries. The press release continues:
Today's Decision requires EU countries to make sure that the two new numbers can be assigned by national telecoms regulators from 15 April 2010. It will be up to the relevant national organisations to apply for the numbers and put them into operation.
And guess what Ofcom's doing:
1.1 This document provides the necessary information for service providers who are interested in applying for the allocation and right to use the UK version of the Harmonised European 116117 number to provide a ‘Non-emergency medical on-call service’.

1.2 The document sets out the two stage selection process, the related activities and timelines. It also provides, in Annex 2, the specific questions to be answered and submitted to Ofcom by 1 October 2010 as part of Stage One of the process in applying for the 116117 number.
Despite that the EU states only the reservation of 116 117 is compulsory not the service:
The Decision obliges EU countries to make "116 numbers" available, but does not oblige them to assign the numbers to a service provider or ensure provision of the services.
What a fine example of gold plating; not only is it made to look, from the BBC report, as if it's an initiative of the Government to try to improve the service, but it's only voluntary and we implement it anyway. At the moment dialing 116 117 comes up unobtainable for me, I wonder how long it will be before it diverts to 111?

It's enough to make anyone want to dial 116 123.

Update: Dizzy Thinks has commented on this proposal blaming the coalition but Ofcom put forward this idea back in July last year (I can't find the original document yet):

UK regulator Ofcom has proposed allocating the number 111 for non-emergency medical advice, arguing that no-one can remember the number for NHS Direct.
And again guess what:
There is some argument that 116117 would make a better alternative: it's been proposed by Germany and is currently in the process of being ratified for unification across Europe.
In the same way for example that EU number 116 111 diverts to Childline, 116 117 is likely to be diverted to 111.

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