UNIONS have slammed leaked plans to close both North-East NHS advice line centres and replace them with what they claim will be an inferior service based in Carlisle.

Details of the changes were contained in a leaked internal email from NHS Direct, the organisation which runs NHS advice centres across the country.

But NHS Direct have denied that the centres named by health unions will definitely close and have insisted that discussions about the future of NHS helplines were still going on.

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A new helpline for urgent but non-emergency calls to be known as NHS 111 is due to replace NHS Direct from April.

The RCN said the memo suggested that the two NHS Direct North-East centres would be replaced with a new NHS 111 centre in Carlisle.

RCN officials said there are around 90 staff working at the Newcastle NHS Direct centre in Longbenton with another 13 working for NHS Direct within North Tees Hospital in Stockton.

Glenn Turp, RCN Northern Region's regional director said: "We have been saying for some time that this is a misguided plan, and this email confirms that 111 will be a pale shadow of what NHS Direct used to be."

"The public don't realise that this Government is abolishing NHS Direct. It's not simply a change of phone number, the new service from 111 is significantly inferior. The reality is that we are going to see pressure increase on ambulances, A&E wards and GP surgeries, as the nurse-led self care and telephone advice service is effectively lost."

Clare Williams, Unison regional convenor, said, "It is with disappointment that we have heard the confirmation of the closure of the Newcastle NHS Direct call centre. This will be a disaster for patients and staff. This is a vital service that patients rely on.

A spokesman for NHS Direct said: "Fears that 50 per cent of front line staff will lose their jobs are unfounded.

"The Department of Health has agreed that NHS Direct's front line staff will be offered the opportunity to move into a job providing the new 111 service with other providers (ambulance trusts and GP out-of-hours organisations) where NHS Direct is not the chosen provider of the 111 service in an area. The future of other NHS Direct sites has not been decided."