A London health authority is using pounds195,000 of winter pressures money to launch what may be the first 24-hour nurse-led helpline to divert patients from casualty wards.

Proposals to introduce similar helplines nationally were outlined in the government's white paper, The New NHS.

But Ealing, Hammersmith and Hounslow HA said the idea had been inspired by the chief medical officer's executive letter last September, which advised HAs and trusts on measures to ease winter pressures.

The project is building on the success of a triage helpline service run by a GP co-operative based at Ealing Hospital for the past year.

Nurses taking out-of-hours calls have dealt with 70,000 patients seeking immediate medical help.

Half the callers needed advice only, and 35 per cent had visits to a primary care centre arranged.

Home visits by GPs were necessary in only 15 per cent of cases.

Nurses running the new 24-hour service will intercept calls to the accident and emergency wards of Ealing, Hammersmith, West Middlesex and Charing Cross hospitals.

The intention is to reduce pressures on A&E, cut emergency admissions and reduce pressures on the London ambulance service.

Although the new service has not been publicised, it has been taking between 30 and 40 calls a day since it opened on 30 December.

The project will last for three months.