CALLS to the 111 non-emergency health line covering Wiltshire are being answered in Milton Keynes during busy periods.

The 111 service is run by private firm Harmoni at its call centre in Bristol but, due to changes to shift patterns, a number of staff have left resulting in calls being re-routed 100 miles away to Milton Keynes for another company to answer.

The 111 service in Wiltshire got off to a chaotic start in February 2013 with Harmoni’s call handlers sending ambulances to people with minor ailments such as sore throats and hiccups.

It wasn’t until seven months later that Wiltshire Clinical Commiss-ioning Group authorised for the service to operate 24/7, but problems continue.

Harmoni, part of Care UK, has breached targets – namely dispatching more ambulances than the contract states, more referrals to Accident and Emergency departments and below target levels of transferring callers to speak to a clinician.

The re-routing of calls at busy times to Milton Keynes was revealed at a meeting of Wiltshire Council’s Health Select Committee on Tuesday in Trowbridge.

Patrick Mulcahy, associate director of commissioning for urgent care at the CCG, said: “Harmoni have gone through a formal staff consultation in order to re-align staff members to manage peaks of activity.

"As a consequence they had a number of staff leaving. Over the last three months they have been operating with less staff than we and them would like. They can push activity to Milton Keynes, particularly at weekends.”

Coun Jeff Osborn said: “It’s all very unsatisfactory. They are not fulfilling their contract. We might as well have one call centre for the whole country.”

Coun Bob Jones said the 111 service was not fit for purpose.

Coun John Noeken met with Harmoni two weeks ago and was told that they were recruiting new staff and a new shift pattern started last Monday.

From this month the CCG can fine Harmoni for breaching targets. Dr David Lee, urgent care medical director for Care UK, said the company had reviewed staffing levels at 111.

He said: “As part of the new structure, we have the ability, as and when needed, to call on additional resources from an organisation called Conduit, an approved NHS subcontractor and experienced working in the NHS 111 service and previously in NHS Direct.

They will only provide this additional capacity when there is a surge in demand that our own colleagues cannot deal with.

“This dedicated team from Conduit, working out of a centre in Milton Keynes, has been fully trained on Care UK’s clinical systems and has access to the same directory of local services as staff in our Bristol centre. What is important is not so much where the person who receives a patient call is sitting, but that the patient’s call is answered promptly and efficiently.

“We are confident we now have a system in place which enables us to provide a first-class patient service at all times, even when the service is under heaviest pressure.”