THE boss of IMH, the company behind terrible difficulties for patients at five GP surgeries, has apologised to the people of Swindon.

So did one of the leading figures at the care commissioning group, which gave the company the contract to manage how the surgeries take calls and appointments requests.

Martyn Diaper, who runs the Manchester-based IMH group, was at Swindon Borough Council’s adult’s health, care and housing scrutiny committee where he was quizzed by members of the public and councillors over the problems with the surgeries’ call handling procedures, and which have led to long waits on the phone for patients, and protests outside practices.

He admitted: “It’s not been good enough. We are sorry.”

Dr Diaper said that the company had underestimated demand for appointments when it took over the running of back office functions at Taw Hill, Eldene and Phoenix surgeries and the Abbey Meads and Moredon medical centres.

He said: “Our modelling didn’t tell us about unmet demand at the practices and that demand outstripped our modelling when we took over the appointments system.

Councillors and members of the public were not easily placated.

Carol Willis, manager of Swindon Healthwatch said: “We made an unannounced observation at the call centre,

"You say that there are 16 people there – when we went there were five and the practice manager also on the phone taking calls.

“This is not acceptable. You can be apologetic, you can say that you’re working with the CCG to put it right. You can say this is happening, that is happening, but it’s not happening quickly enough.”

Dr Diaper said: “Well the situation yesterday was due to staff sickness, but there are 10 to 16 people at the call centre when it’s fully staffed.

“We also have a situation where some of the staff have contracts with the individual practices, so where the phone lines are live at 8am, they come in at 10 am.”

That didn’t satisfy Coun Bob Wright who said: “I don’t think you’re being honest, you’re not telling the public what’s going on.

“You are trying to do this with about 25 per cent of the staff you need and that’s just not acceptable.”

Dr Diaper did not accept he was being dishonest.

Coun Emma Faramarzi took the unusual step as a councillor of attending the meeting as a member of the public, such was her strength of feeling.

She said: “I have people who have contacted me to say they’ve been getting ready for an appointment and they have it cancelled by text just 30 minutes before. They are then told to ring the call centre to make another one.

“I tried it and I was sat on the phone for 112 minutes. Why don’t you make a new appointment immediately, if you’re cancelling?”

Gill May the head of nursing and transformation at Swindon CCG said: “That level of inconvenience is not acceptable.

“We are sorry this has happened and we are working as hard as we can with IMH to put things right.

“We are having a learning event to find out what’s gone wrong, and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

North Swindon prospective parliamentary candidate Kate Linnegar, who was involved in protests over the problems said patients were still experiencing long delays and difficulty booking appointments.

"The apologies to patients are welcome but there doesn't seem to be any urgency to finding and putting in place solutions. The problems have been common knowledge since the beginning of October last year. How is it possible for such an experienced company to take on a contract without first having a clear picture of the problems?

"Patients received a letter apologising for the problems and telling them why the partnership with IMH had to go ahead. There was no detail on how IMH plan to improve the services. There have been no commitments to set a time frame for improvements. The Healthwatch statement that only 5 call handlers were onsite when they made an unannounced visit corroborates an anonymous contact I have received stating that more call handlers are put on for visitors. The CEO of IMH said there was high sickness amongst the staff. Perhaps the CCG could investigate working conditions and staff morale since IMH arrived.

"I was due to have a meeting with the CCG last week but it was snowed off. I have a lot of questions to ask particularly around correct procedures where errors have occurred.

"This situation is far from resolved and patients are concerned that serious damage will be done to someone's health. I urge patients to join the patient participation groups linked to the surgeries and to keep reporting their experiences to the surgeries. This is one way we are keeping up the pressure for positive change."