HEALTH watchdogs have launched an investigation into an NHS out-of-hours call centre in Dorset after pictures emerged of staff apparently asleep at their desks.

The 111 centre, in Ringwood Road, St Leonard’s was already under fire following the tragic death of a one-year-old boy.

Teenagers without medical training were also drafted in to answer urgent calls, it has emerged.

Pictures of a female paramedic and male call handler, who both appeared to be asleep, were printed on the front page of a national newspaper alongside an article in which a “whistle-blower” spoke out about working practices at the centre.

It is one of two centres in the South Western Ambulance area, covering Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.

Baby William Mead from Penryn in Cornwall died of sepsis hours after his worried mum called the service for advice and spoke to a call handler in Dorset.

Following his death, a full investigation was carried out and William’s parents received an apology from the Trust after it acknowledged that an opportunity was missed to identify how unwell he was.

Former Senior Call Adviser, Sarah Hayes from Bournemouth, spoke out about the service and claimed she was left on her own in a call centre covering the whole of Dorset. She has no medical training but said she was responsible for the care of 400,000 people, with no support.

Responding to reports in a national newspaper, the Care Quality Commission said it would probe the allegations raised by a former call handler-turned whistleblower.

Deputy chief inspector Ruth Rankine said: "These allegations are unacceptable. We take them extremely seriously and are planning to carry out an early inspection to investigate.

"We have also been working closely with commissioners and local partners to make sure patients are safe.

"It is critical that patients using urgent and emergency care are assured it is safe, effective, caring, responsive and well-led."

A spokeswoman from the CQC said staff at the service covering Devon, Dorset and Cornwall would be interviewed as part of the process.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the teenagers, who were said to be hardworking.

The teenagers, who were said to have only been authorised to take patients' names and details or offer basic advice on where to find a chemist or health service, reportedly answered urgent calls.

Joyce Guest, Chair of Healthwatch Dorset, said: “These reports are very disturbing. One member of staff with no medical training left alone, with no nurse or paramedic, is a situation which should never have happened and it must never happen again. The service needs to be adequately staffed at all times.

“Exhausted staff are more likely to make mistakes. People trust the NHS to look after them and their families, but sometimes this service is letting people down.”

South Western Ambulance failed to respond to requests for a comment from the Daily Echo, but told the Press Association that patient care and safety were "top priorities" for the organisation and its own investigation had been launched.