The Department of Health is planning a rapid expansion of the NHS 111 service next year in order to achieve universal coverage by April 2013.

Pilots of the single point of access urgent care service are already up and running in Luton, Nottingham, Lincolnshire, and Durham and Darlington where primary care trusts have commissioned the service from ambulance trusts and NHS Direct.

Department of Health director of service design, commissioning and system management Miles Ayling has written to strategic health authorities inviting expressions of interest in running new pilots.

Mr Ayling writes: “In response to growing interest within the NHS, the secretary of state has asked that we rapidly expand the number and range of pilots, and that entry to the programme be as permissive as possible.”

The minimum requirements for a pilot will be the ability to dispatch an ambulance without delay; completion of a clinical assessment on the first call without the need for a call back; ability to refer calls to other providers without the caller being re-triaged; and the ability to transfer clinical assessment data to other providers and book appointments where appropriate.

Each pilot will be free to decide which software, operating model and clinical content they use provided they can meet the necessary standards on patient safety, information handling and performance.

The letter continues: “We also want to allow new sites to join the programme as and when they are ready, rather than going in waves.

“This flexible approach should ensure steady growth leading up to universal coverage by April 2013 and allow some new schemes to join the programme with immediate effect.”

The April 2013 deadline means NHS 111 services will already be up and running when GPs take over commissioning from PCTs.

NHS 111 will eventually replace services offered by NHS Direct. The pilots have proved controversial as they employ fewer registered nurses than the original NHS non-emergency number.

About 17 per cent of staff working on the north east pilot – being delivered by the North East Ambulance Service from a combined 999 and 111 call centre – are registered nurses.

This compares with 38 per cent on the other three pilots, which are being delivered by NHS Direct. In total 48 per cent of NHS Direct staff are nurses.