GP out-of-hours providers have been drafted in to handle calls which were due to be received by the new NHS 111 service across the North West and West Midlands, HSJ has learned.

The areas are NHS Direct’s two biggest contracts for the new non-emergency phone number, which was due to go live last week. HSJ understands local GP OOH providers were asked to start taking calls within days of the soft launches last week as patients were left waiting for long periods for their calls to be answered. Many calls were abandoned.

The aborted launches have been blamed on the increase in the time it takes call handlers to deal with calls when compared with NHS Direct and OOH, leading to the build up of a backlog of patients. It is expected this will reduce over time.

In the West Midlands, Badger GP OOH Service, Primecare and West Midlands Ambulance Service were among the organisations asked to pick up the slack.

Wayne Bartlett, NHS 111 regional project director said the service had “encountered some operational and technical issues” following the soft launch and additional call handlers had been “brought in to underpin the service”.

In the North West some OOH providers took the decision to take back the call handling function about four hours after the soft launch last Thursday.

David Beckett, chief executive of Go to Doc which provides OOH services to 1.1 million people in Manchester, Oldham, Tameside and Glossop, told HSJ they took back call handling responsibility due to concerns something could be missed as so few patients appeared to be getting through. He said the service had been receiving about half as many patients as usual while NHS 111 was live.

A spokesman for NHS North West said call handling had returned to OOH providers where possible, while in other areas the North West Ambulance Service Trust had stepped in. NHS 111 was taking OOH calls in a “small number of areas”. He said it was not yet clear how long it would take to resolve these issues.

Last week HSJ revealed half of the country was set to miss the 21 March deadline for the switchover to NHS 111 due to widespread concern the service was not ready to cope with high levels of demand expected over the Easter bank holiday weekend. The government has faced repeated calls to slow down the roll out since it was announced in 2010.

A senior source from another out-of-hours provider which has been asked to continue taking calls said: “The blame is now being spread around between the providers, especially NHS Direct, and the CCGs and it’s not fair. This is something that came from on high.”

Tricia Hamilton , of NHS Direct, said the organisation was addressing the problem by reviewing forecasts for activity against capacity and bringing in extra frontline staff.