Private health contractor’s staff told to cut 999 calls to meet targets

Call handlers staffing an out-of-hours GP service run by the private contractor Serco have been told to make new checks before calling 999 when they receive what appear to be emergency cases in order to cut down the number of referrals they make to the ambulance service.

The Guardian has also seen a management email to staff describing how they should manipulate their computer system in order to meet targets set down in the company’s contract on 999 responses.

Serco introduced a new cost-saving NHS IT system to the out-of-hours service it runs in Cornwall last summer as required by the local commissioners, enabling it to replace skilled clinicians with call-handlers without medical training who follow a computer-generated script to assess patients. The move triggered a fourfold increase in ambulance call-outs.

An email from Serco managers to staff this month, leaked by a whistle-blower to the Guardian, instructed call-handlers to “stop the clock” if the IT system reaches a screen telling the operator to make a 999 call while they check it. Staff have expressed concern that this might delay an ambulance in a real emergency and that the new system is not sophisticated enough to distinguish between urgent and less serious cases — via

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