Concerns about the “rushed” and “shambolic” procurement process for the 111 non-emergency phone service are deterring private sector providers, HSJ has learned.

HSJ understands Serco, which provides an out-of-hours urgent care service in Cornwall, has decided not to bid for any of the NHS 111 contracts which are being awarded on a primary care trust cluster or regional basis.

Capita and Care UK have formed a partnership to bid for NHS 111 but are still undecided about whether to join the race for contracts, most of which will be awarded this summer.

NHS 111 must be rolled out nationally by April 2013 when it will replace NHS Direct’s 0845 number. It has attracted interest from ambulance trusts, GP out-of-hours providers and some major outsourcing companies, as well as NHS Direct.

However, senior sources involved in the process have complained of inflexible block contract arrangements which do not share risk in the event of greater than expected demand.

A source from one prospective bidder told HSJ the process was unnecessarily “rushed” and warned it was impossible to predict demand before the pilots had been fully evaluated. Initial results showed variation in call volumes between the different pilot areas. “Despite this the tenders are all for block contracts,” he added.

A senior source from a competing organisation said: “If the government wanted to take NHS Direct and hand it to the ambulance service why didn’t they just do that, instead of going through this shambolic procurement process?”

Two contracts have been awarded so far. The North East’s went to a partnership between North East Ambulance Service Foundation Trust and Northern Doctors Urgent Care Ltd while East of England Ambulance Service Trust was successful in Norfolk.

British Medical Association council member and GP Peter Holden, who is involved in an NHS 111 pilot in Derbyshire, raised concerns about the ability of ambulance services to cross-subsidise. “There seems to be a very definite lack of a level playing field,” he said.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “The DH has received some representations asking for an extension to the rollout of NHS 111. We are considering this matter carefully and taking views from clinical commissioning groups before any decision is taken.”