NHS Direct has been named as the preferred provider to deliver the new non-emergency NHS 111 phone number to almost 1.5m residents in the South West.

Subject to finalisation of contracts, the NHS trust will provide the service in Cornwall and Somerset when it goes live next March, replacing NHS Direct's 0845 number.

The deal, thought to be worth at least £21m over five years, is good news for the telephone triage service which faces an uncertain future if it fails to win enough NHS 111 business to make its foundation trust bid viable.

However, NHS Direct lost out on contracts for the other five primary care trust clusters in the region. Out of hours provider Harmoni has been named preferred provider in the Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset and Wiltshire, and Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire clusters while South West Ambulance Service Foundation Trust was successful in Dorset and in Devon in partnership with GP out of hours provider Devon Doctors Ltd.

NHS 111 will be a slightly different service to NHS Direct, using fewer nurses and focusing on directing callers to the most appropriate local service, including booking appointments where possible. It is being commissioned on a regional or primary care trust cluster basis.

In London commissioners are running a series of pilots led by GP out of hours providers. Outside the capital, ambulance trusts have been the biggest winners so far.

It was also announced yesterday that South Central Ambulance Service Foundation Trust will provide the service in the Southampton, Hampshire and Portsmouth in a contract worth £20m over five years.

The first two contracts, in the north east and Norfolk, were also awarded to the local ambulance services earlier this year.
Competitors have complained ambulance trusts have an unfair advantage and would potentially be able to cross subsidise their NHS 111 contract with emergency work.

This week Capita and Care UK, which formed a partnership to bid for contracts, confirmed they had abandoned those plans after becoming frustrated at the way the procurement process was being run. Serco, which was also interested initially, has also decided not to bid for any of the remaining contracts.

Preferred providers for most parts of the country are expected to be announced by July. Under Department of Health policy all areas of the country must be ready to go live with NHS 111 by March 21 next year.