NHS 111 is swiftly transforming into a coronavirus hotline as more and more people call up with concerns about the virus – known as Covid-19.
People with symptoms or those who have come into contact with others who tested positive for the virus are being urged to call the helpline rather than heading to GP surgeries and risking spreading the illness further.
An NHS spokesperson confirmed to HuffPost UK the service is “understandably busy” at present and “people may have to wait longer than usual” to speak to someone.
Extra call handlers have been recruited to support those already working around the clock to give advice to callers on coronavirus and other medical concerns. “All calls are being responded to thanks to hard working NHS staff,” the spokesperson said.
Labour councillor Alev Cazimoglu said she called NHS 111 after returning from northern Italy with a sore throat and had to wait a day for a callback. She confirmed to HuffPost UK that she was told by NHS 111 it could take up to three days to get tested.
“What about people with caring responsibilities?” she tweeted of the delays in testing, urging health secretary Matt Hancock to “speed things up”.
What happens when you call NHS 111?
As cases surge worldwide – there have been at least 80,000 global cases confirmed and more than 2,800 people have died – so too have calls to NHS 111, which has become the front line for coronavirus.
In the UK, 17 cases have been confirmed as of 28 February. While the figures are still relatively small, health secretary Matt Hancock said the government is expecting further cases in the UK. There are even concerns it could take just 72 hours for an outbreak the size of Italy’s to take hold here on home soil.
But what can you actually expect when you call NHS 111 if you feel unwell and believe it might be coronavirus? And how quickly can you get tested?
The service is automated to begin with and will take you through a series of steps to determine whether you need further help. You will be asked whether you’ve been out of the UK in the past 14 days or have come into contact with someone with a confirmed case of Covid-19.
A series of automated steps follows. If you’ve returned from one of the places severely impacted by coronavirus (such as China, Iran and the group of towns on lockdown in northern Italy); are displaying symptoms – a cough, high temperature or shortness of breath; or have come into contact with someone with the virus, you should be put through to a call handler who can offer advice.
The advice will be to ‘self-isolate’ – this means staying at home (ie. not going to work, school or other public areas; and not using public transport or taxis) and avoiding having visitors other than friends or family members who need to carry out errands for you. You may be advised to self-isolate for up to 14 days to stop the virus from spreading.
NHS 111 works on a regional basis, so in the event of an increased demand on a particular region, the extra demand will be re-routed to another region. Call-handlers have been trained to follow carefully designed instructions that satisfy both the travel and symptom criteria, updated as and when necessary following advice from Public Health England (PHE).
What about coronavirus testing?
The NHS call handler should also tell you what the next steps are in regards to testing. At this stage you will be classified as a ‘possible case’. After your details have been recorded and the possibility of needing an immediate emergency response has been eliminated, you will be passed to a clinician for a full assessment and offered appropriate advice on what happens next.
Any callers to NHS 111 deemed eligible for testing are likely to be directed to a community testing location where a health protection team will take samples to test for coronavirus. These may include mucus from the nose, throat or lungs; blood, and a stool sample.
In London, the NHS is also trialling ‘drive through’ coronavirus testing and at-home testing, where NHS staff, including nurses and paramedics, will visit people in their own homes rather than them having to travel.
As it stands, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS have not issued a set timeframe it is working to when it comes to testing. HuffPost UK has contacted the DHSC for comment on this.