THE operator of an NHS call centre in Surrey has defended itself after a TV documentary this week branded it "understaffed, underskilled and dangerous".
Two undercover reporters from Channel 4's Dispatches infiltrated centres operated by Harmoni, a private company contracted to run the 111 urgent medical advice line in parts of England, to investigate concerns.
One reporter, Luke Denne, was trained as a call handler at the firm's offices in Station Road, Dorking. Mr Denne was required to assess patients' medical problems over the phone, with professional advice available to him from trained clinicians.
However, he recorded hidden camera footage showing other call handlers making decisions on tricky cases, or telling him to use his own judgement, apparently due to a lack of clinically trained staff.
Mr Denne recorded a staff member saying that on one night there had been no clinical staff on duty at all, a claim refuted by Harmoni.
A manager at the Dorking centre was also heard to say: "We had a very bad service. Still realistically on the weekends we still are unsafe. We don't have the staff to deal with the calls that are coming in."
The footage was assessed by Dr Peter Holden, the British Medical Association's lead on urgent and out-of-hours care, who concluded: "It's understaffed, it's underskilled and it's dangerous."
Stressing that 111 is not a replacement for the 999 service, Harmoni said its service was "safe and high quality" and reviewed weekly.
The statement read in part: "The pace and timing of rollout of a new large scale service made the early operation of NHS 111 services very challenging and initial service levels during busy weekend periods were not as strong as they are now.
"This was the case in some of Harmoni's services and Harmoni apologises to anyone who experienced a delay during this period."