In March last year, we launched NHS Direct pilot schemes in Newcastle, Preston and Milton Keynes. An independent survey has shown that 97 per cent. of the callers surveyed were satisfied with the service they received from the three pilot schemes, which shows that NHS Direct is a great success. That is why we are extending that 24-hour, nurse-led helpline to cover more than 40 per cent. of the country by Easter. That coverage will include West Yorkshire NHS Direct, covering my hon. Friend's constituency. NHS Direct will be extended to cover 60 per cent. of the country by the beginning of December.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. As he said, the NHS Direct initiative will be launched in West Yorkshire on 7 April and will cover some 2 million people. Does he share my hope that in my city of Leeds, the new initiative will help to reduce the number of admissions to accident and emergency units, which currently run at 12 per cent. above the national average?
Further to a conversation I had a with a nurse when I was in hospital the other week, will my right hon. Friend assure me that the new scheme will be given the maximum possible publicity campaign, so that the people of West Yorkshire will be aware of the Government's excellent initiative?
The object of NHS Direct is to provide a better 24-hour service to people. In some cases, people will be referred instantly to an accident and emergency department; in other cases, they will receive advice, help or reassurance. The object is to provide anyone who rings the service with the assistance that they need. That is the crucial point. One of the few complaints revealed by the survey of the three pilot schemes was that they were not receiving enough publicity. Therefore, I shall do my best to ensure that as each new NHS Direct scheme comes into operation in different parts of the country, it gets the publicity that it clearly deserves.
Why, when the Secretary of State delivered a statement about NHS Direct only a month ago, did he make no mention of his plans to consider replacing all contact with the family doctor and diverting people instead through a remote national call centre? That is what he told the newspapers on Sunday. He must have known of the proposal in Northumberland when he made his statement. Why did he not have the honesty to tell the House that he was looking to move NHS Direct into a whole new area?
The hon. Gentleman was present on 2 February when I announced the proposal to extend NHS Direct to 40 per cent. of the country by Easter and to 60 per cent. of the country by December. If he checks Hansard, he will note that I drew attention to the proposal advanced by local doctors from around the Newcastle centre in Northumberland to go ahead with the scheme, under which people would ring NHS Direct first rather than go straight to their doctors. That was part of the statement that the hon. Gentleman may recall he welcomed.
I have Hansard here. The Secretary of State implied that the proposal was for only out-of-hours calls. I welcome a central number—that is what I called for. It may be only a trial, but the subject requires a proper debate. It now appears that the right hon. Gentleman is not talking about only out-of-hours calls. If patients cannot call their own doctors but must go through a national centre, it becomes "NHS Indirect". Will he confirm that the Government are against centralisation and that he favours maintaining close local contact between patients and their family doctors?
All that I can say—if it is not out of order, Madam Speaker—is that it seems rather empty-headed to have listened to a statement about a 24-hour helpline and concluded that its extension would not cover a 24-hour period. That is what it will do. I emphasise that I did not provoke or encourage the scheme in Northumberland: the proposal came from the Northumbria ambulance service, the local health information service and Northern Doctors Urgent Care—a GP co-operative which provides services in that area. Those bodies want to go ahead and pilot the scheme and, if it works, I have no doubt that other doctors and people elsewhere in the country will want to introduce similar schemes. We are conducting a pilot scheme to see whether the proposal will work, but it will not prevent people in Northumberland from ringing their own doctors.