A partnership between out-of-hours provider Harmoni and South East Coast Ambulance Service Foundation Trust has been named preferred provider to deliver NHS 111 in Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

The three-year deal is the second NHS 111 contract to be awarded on a regional basis to a partnership between the region’s ambulance service and one of the local out-of-hours providers, following in the footsteps of the North East which was announced earlier this year.

Speaking to HSJ following the announcement of the contract, South East Coast Ambulance Service chief executive Paul Sutton said the trust had decided to partner with Harmoni, which employs GPs and nurses, as it was felt a multi-disciplinary approach was most suitable for the non-emergency phone number which is due to replace NHS Direct from April next year.

Harmoni has also recently been named preferred provider in three primary care trust clusters in the south west and is leading on three services in London and one in Suffolk.

However, the procurement process had been criticised by some potential providers for being rushed, with a lack of information on legal obligations to NHS Direct staff and biased towards ambulance trusts which could cross subsidise the service from the 999 contract.

Mr Sutton admitted the trust’s 999 infrastructure was a “pretty powerful safety net” when embarking on delivering the service but said competitors, including NHS Direct, had their own advantages when bidding for the contracts.

He said the 111 and 999 call handling services would be kept separate initially but the organisations would be “looking hard at how we can provide patients and commissioners a better service by closer integration”.

Providing the NHS 111 service fitted with the ambulance service’s increasing focus on treating patients over the phone or at the scene where appropriate and would be welcomed by staff who were often frustrated by the number of people coming through to 999 unnecessarily, he said.

NHS 111 call handlers will use a computer system containing algorithms to navigate around the local directory of services which must be populated by local providers and signed off by commissioners. Commissioners will have a degree of control over which services are recommended to callers, for example a walk-in centre over an emergency department.

Mr Sutton said: “The success of NHS 111 is largely contingent on the strength of the directory of services. It provides a great opportunity to provide better, more streamlined care for patients but also really powerful information for commissioners about gaps and duplication in existing provision.

“NHS 111 is much more about linking patients up to the services appropriate to their need than seeing switches in call volumes.”

He said the trust would now need to “sit down and work out” how many staff would have to transfer to the new service from NHS Direct and other out-of-hours providers in the South East Coast region.