Suicidal callers to NHS 111 helpline 'put on hold until they hang up'

The NHS has launched an "urgent investigation" following newspaper claims that suicidal people calling the NHS 111 helpline are being left on hold until they hang up while staff are asleep at their desks.

The Sun placed an undercover reporter at the NHS 111 call centre at St Charles Hospital in Ladbroke Grove, west London, which provides 24-hour support for callers from 11 boroughs in north, west and central London.

The newspaper said it found call handlers asleep at their desks or describing themselves as "busy" on the internal computer system to avoid new calls and patients.

Technical glitches reportedly ended with one handler hanging up on at least three patients, including one with heart palpitations.

Workers were told to tell callers they were experiencing technical failures when they may have been struggling to work the system, according to The Sun.

The newspaper reported an alleged conversation with one of the handlers about how she dealt with a suicidal patient.

The newspaper said the handler told the undercover reporter "she was crying and I was asking her stuff like, 'do you not really want to talk', she was like, 'no'... I put her on mute".

A Department of Health spokesman described the claims as "clearly completely unacceptable" if found to be true.

He said: "The NHS is now urgently investigating and if any wrongdoing whatsoever is found, including criminal actions, we will want to see the police and relevant NHS regulators alerted as necessary."

The report also claimed that managers changed the undercover reporter's timesheets to show he had done more training hours than he had.

Simon Douglass, medical director of the London Central and West Unscheduled Care Collaborative, which runs the centre, said patient safety "is, and always will be, our highest priority".

He said: "We take any allegations extremely seriously and have launched an urgent investigation. The matters leading to the allegations appear to have arisen earlier this year when the undercover reporter participated in training.

"All issues relating to staff conduct are extremely important to us, particularly in relation to patient safety. We strictly enforce our policies for managing staff conduct at all times including whenever we receive reports of inappropriate conduct or behaviour."