Coronavirus

Minister says materials are ‘commercially sensitive’ amid concern over service’s performance

Thu 29 Apr 2021 11.52 BST

The government has been criticised for refusing to make public the training materials call handlers in the NHS 111 coronavirus response service (CRS) were given at the start of the pandemic, on the grounds that they are “commercially sensitive”.

Kate Osamor, the Labour MP who warned last year that the 111 service “simply couldn’t cope” with the huge number of people needing advice for Covid-19 symptoms, condemned the refusal as an “insult” to families whose relatives have died from the virus.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group has said that many of its members strongly believe that their relatives who died were failed by inadequate advice from 111 call handlers, and has demanded the service be investigated as part of a public inquiry.

NHS England said last year that call handlers for the CRS were “carefully selected, screened and trained”, and pointed to the successful handling of millions of calls. But some people who worked for private companies contracted to provide the service told the Guardian they had been given the job after negligible training.

Last month the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) responded to the concerns by launching an inquiry into how the 111 service responded to people who sought advice for potential Covid-19 symptoms.

In parliamentary questions last October, Osamor asked the government to publish the training materials for CRS call handlers, the assessments call handlers had to pass before taking calls from members of the public, and the guidance given to GPs recruited to work in the clinical part of the service in August.

Responding to the questions on 15 April, six months later, the health minister Edward Argar said the government was refusing to publish any of the information requested. “The CRS is run by South Central ambulance service NHS foundation trust [SCAS],” he replied. “The trust has advised that the information requested is commercially sensitive as a result of the competitive process to award contracts to individuals or service providers to deliver the CRS.”

The SCAS confirmed that it regarded the guidance and training materials provided to its NHS 111 operators as commercially confidential. It said: “They are SCAS clinical documents which are intended for clinical use and not public display. As they have been developed and governed by SCAS we would not want them made publicly available for third party use.”

SCAS said it was arranging to meet Osamor and would “share and discuss” the materials with her, arguing that this meant they would be subject to public accountability.

“There is no refusal to actually share these materials and we dispute the suggestion they are being withheld strongly, as they aren’t,” it said. “We are currently working closely with the HSIB to review all aspects of the CRS and this is a process we welcome and support. Once completed and the findings published, it will provide clarity on how the service operated during the pandemic.”

Lena Vincent, a member of the bereaved families’ group, whose partner, Patrick McManus, an NHS hospital nurse, died from Covid-19 last April after calling 111 three times, said, however, that not publishing the materials showed “a total disrespect to families and our loved ones”. “Families put their trust in NHS 111 call centres; we have lost our loved ones and are struggling to move forward,” she said. “It’s in the public interest to know how the calls were handled.”

Osamor criticised the government’s delay in replying to her questions as “unheard of” and rejected the view that a meeting with SCAS would provide the accountability required. “Serious concerns have been raised about the performance of the NHS 111 service during this pandemic and the public have a right to know exactly what went wrong,” she said. “It is shocking that the government appears intent on frustrating any attempts to get to the heart of how the service has operated.

“The competitive tendering of NHS services is being used to shield the government and its partners from public accountability. It simply isn’t good enough to hide behind the smokescreen of ‘commercial sensitivity’. The families of those who died from Covid-19 deserve full transparency from NHS 111, the organisations which carry out its functions, and the government. Anything less is an insult.”

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