Scotland politics

New number and free calls to NHS 24 announced

Health Secretary Alex Neil launching the new number
Image caption Health Secretary Alex Neil launched the new number in Edinburgh

Calls to the NHS non-emergency helpline in Scotland are to be free from next summer.

At the moment people dial an 11-digit number and pay the price of a local phone call when they ring the NHS 24 service.

From summer 2014 they will instead call 111 for non-urgent medical advice and will not be charged.

It comes after calls for the Scottish government to follow a similar change made in England.

NHS Direct - the equivalent service in England to NHS 24 - is gradually being replaced by the free-to-use 111 service.

It is already operating in many areas south of the border, and is due to be rolled out across the remainder this year.

There have been some criticisms, by doctors, of changes to the service offered in England which go along with the new number, but in Scotland the service will remain the same.

Launching the new number in Edinburgh, Health Secretary Alex Neil said: "By introducing this memorable and free number we are removing any barrier for the public to access the health advice when their GP surgery is closed."

The move was welcomed by Caroline Mockford, a community activist with The Poverty Alliance.

After being charged almost £8 by her mobile service provider for a call to NHS 24, Ms Mockford submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament.

She said: "Many people on low incomes often use pre-payment mobile phones as they do not have a landline.

"My research showed that 33% of mobile-only phone users indicated that cost would be a barrier to them accessing NHS 24 and if they had no credit in their phone they would have to phone 999.

"I felt that action needed to be taken on this, especially for those with disabilities, like myself, parents with children, and pensioners, who are most often the people who need this service."

Calls and advice

Earlier this month the Scottish Conservatives urged ministers to scrap charges for calls to NHS 24.

The party's health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said it had been "yet another area in health" where patients in Scotland would be worse off than people elsewhere in the UK seeking vital health advice.

NHS 24 handled 1,419,657 calls in 2011-12, while 68,515 callers chose to listen to recorded information and advice.

About 90% of calls to NHS 24 take place in the "out-of-hours" period - evenings, weekends and public holidays.

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