A TELEPHONE health helpline is being launched across Teesside today, in time for the winter rush of illnesses.

NHS Direct has already proved popular in East and North Yorkshire, and from today, patients across Teesside will also have access to the service.

A team of nurses will run the call centre at North Tees General Hospital, in Stockton.

Using computer software, they will provide callers with round-the-clock expert healthcare advice.

NHS Direct,which can be reached on 0845 46 47, was launched to ease the pressure on GPs and hospitals, by allowing patients to get advice in their own homes.

The Teesside service is an extension to the NHS Direct site in East Yorkshire, which has been operating since April 1999, and will give 550,000 more people a new way of getting NHS advice.

Bob Stunley, project manager of NHS Direct Tees, East and Yorkshire, said: "NHS Direct has proved popular with people all over the country, and I'm sure Teesside will be no exception.

"Users of the service have told us they are delighted to know they can access the expertise of a trained professional nurse at any time of the day or night from the comfort of their own home.

"One of the main principles behind NHS Direct is that it should be a first port of call for people who have a health query but don't know where to turn.

"The team here are trained to assess a situation and advise people on an appropriate course of action, such as self-care at home, a trip to A&E or an appointment with their GP."

The Teesside call centre will be staffed from 7.15am to 10.45pm every day of the year, and calls outside of those hours will be routed to a call centre in Hull.

Today's launch ceremony will be attended by a number of dignitaries, including the Mayor of Stockton, Peter Andrew.

Councillor Andrew said: "The launch of this helpline is excellent news for the people in this part of the Tees Valley.

"It's vital that people are able to access advice and information in health care as and when they need it, and this service will be of real benefit to people in this area."