The government is facing a backlash over plans to scrap medical helpline NHS Direct.

The Department of Health has disclosed that the service, providing advice to 27,000 people a day, is to be replaced by the new non-emergency number, 111.

Many of NHS Direct’s roles are to be taken over by the new phone line, which is currently being trialled in the North East.

But critics voiced concern that members of the public would no longer be able to speak to nurses with degrees but only call-handlers who have “passed a 60-hour medical course”.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said it would be “short-sighted” of ministers to axe expert nurses who had helped save the NHS more than £200 million by dispensing advice over the phone.

RCN chief executive and general secretary Dr Peter Carter said: “It would be short-sighted to cut back on the experts who deliver these long-term savings. We would be extremely concerned if the expertise it offers is indeed under threat.

“We urge the Government to consult fully and look at all the evidence before enacting changes which could leave people without expert advice from trained nurses.”

Former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott moved to rally opposition to the move, attracting more than 3,200 signatures in less than 24 hours to an online petition at savenhsdirect.co.uk.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham accused health secretary Andrew Lansley of being on “a vindictive mission to break up the NHS, ruthlessly dismantling services before alternatives are in place”.

The Department of Health said “many” of the services offered by NHS Direct “may be subsumed” by the 111 service, which provides health advice and information about out-of-hours GPs, walk-in centres, emergency dentists and 24-hour chemists.

Nick Chapman, chief executive of NHS Direct, said his organisation was working with the trial 111 areas and hoped his staff would play a role in it nationally.

“When detailed plans are made to roll out the service nationally, we hope NHS Direct staff will be able to contribute their experience to the new service,” he said.

He added: “The Government has announced their intention to eventually replace the current NHS Direct telephone number (0845 46 47) with the new 111 number.

“The more memorable number will clearly help patients find the new service more easily.

“NHS 111 is intended to work in an integrated way with local GPs, out-of-hours services, ambulance services and hospitals, for the benefit of patients and to help the NHS become more efficient.”