Axing expert nurses from the NHS Direct medical helpline and replacing them with call handlers is "short sighted", the government has been warned.
The Royal College of Nursing has criticised ministers for their plans to withdraw the service, which provides advice to 27,000 people a day, and replace it with a new non-emergency number 111.
The new phone line, which will take over many of NHS Direct's roles, is being tested in the North East.
Currently, nurses with degrees take the calls of members of the public with health concerns, but they will be replaced with call-handlers who have "passed a 60-hour medical course".
The Royal College of Nursing said NHS Direct saves the health service more than £200m by dispensing over-the-phone advice. It said the move would be "short-sighted".
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham accused Health Secretary Andrew Lansley of being on "a vindictive mission to break up the NHS, ruthlessly dismantling services before alternatives are in place".
NHS Direct provides expert health advice and information to callers, as well as out-of-hours support for GPs and dental services, telephone support for patients with long-term conditions, and pre- and post-operative support for patients.
The Department of Health said "many" of the services offered by NHS Direct "may be subsumed" by the 111 service, which provides health advice and information about out-of-hours GPs, walk-in centres, emergency dentists and 24-hour chemists.
A spokeswoman said: "When NHS 111 is rolled out nationally, it will replace the NHS Direct 0845 4647 telephone number.
"While NHS Direct will no longer exist as a separate phone number, many of the services provided by NHS Direct may be subsumed by the new NHS 111 service. 111 will give patients one easy-to-remember number to access non-emergency NHS healthcare wherever they are, 24 hours a day."
Copyright © Press Association 2010
What's your view? Is the government wrong to axe NHS Direct? Your comments (terms and conditions apply):
"Definitely in my case. Five years ago I was diagnosed with Endocarditis by NHS Direct (symptoms missed by my GP). A month in hospital later I was still alive. Can't ask for a much better service than that" – Andrew Russell, Southampton