The private company operating NHS 111 and GP out of hours services in East Kent is to hand back the contract even earlier than previously planned – leaving commissioners to find an alternative provider to cover the winter.

Primecare, which was placed in special measures in August, originally planned to withdraw in July 2018, more than a year before its three year contract was due to end.

However, the company has confirmed it has invoked a clause in its memorandum of understanding with the East Kent clinical commissioning groups allowing it to give just three months’ notice before handing back the contract.

This was given on 29 September but the CCGs agreed the transition should happen on 1 December, rather than at the start of January, to lessen the disruption during the holiday period. Notice was given just days after a Care Quality Commission inspection, though this is thought to have found some improvements.

A company spokesman said: “Primecare will neither provide out of hours GP and nurse led services in East Kent, nor continue to operate the East Kent NHS 111 service, beyond 1 December 2017.

“We will now prepare to hand over management of the… service to another provider, during which time continuity of patient care and patient safety will be guaranteed by a smooth transition phase.”

The CCGs are in discussion with IC24, a social enterprise that provided out of hours services in East Kent before Primecare won the contract and provides 111 services in other parts of the country, about taking over the contract temporarily.

A spokesman for Canterbury and Coastal CCG, the lead commissioner, said: “We expect to make an announcement in the next few weeks. It is absolutely essential that patients continue to phone 111 if they need medical help fast or are not sure what to do.”

The four East Kent CCGs are then likely to join in a Kent and Medway-wide procurement for both services to run from 2019.

The problems with the Primecare contract have come at a difficult time for the NHS in East Kent. Emergency departments have been struggling, with four hour performance among the worst in the country. East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust has recently replaced its chief executive and chair with interims. GP services have also been under pressure with several surgery closures and the region’s ambulance provider is rated inadequate.

East Kent was one of the first areas to procure an integrated 111 and GP out of hours service but the full mobilisation was delayed and the previous 111 provider was asked to continue to enable a phased handover. The procurement process is being reviewed. A report to the Canterbury and Coastal CCG governing body suggests a key issue may be the volumes specified in the contract.