The NHS has launched a 111 online service to ease some of the strain off its helpline amid the coronavirus – or Covid-19 – outbreak.
The health service is fielding up to 40,000 more calls a day compared to this time last year, as enquiries about the virus surge. On 1 March 2019, they had 36,671 calls. On 1 March 2020, this rose to 75,963 calls.
People with symptoms of coronavirus, or those who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive, are being urged to call the helpline rather than heading to GP surgeries and risking spreading the illness further.
The online service is designed to help people get fast advice about coronavirus and has already offered guidance to more than 70,000 people. People are asked about their symptoms, and are then directed to where they need to get help. If deemed necessary, they will be contacted by a nurse.
The new online service comes after HuffPost UK reported that people had waited for up to a day before receiving a callback from call handlers in response to their concerns over coronavirus.
Labour councillor Alev Cazimoglu called NHS 111 after returning from northern Italy with a sore throat and had to wait a day for a callback. She said she was told by NHS 111 it could take up to three days to get tested for the virus.
Sky news producer Nick Stylianou said he waited 11 hours for a callback from the service after coming back from Bologna, Italy, and was told he’d have to wait another two days to be visited by a community health team and tested.
Last week, 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. “All calls are being responded to thanks to hard working NHS staff,” they said.
How will NHS 111 online help?
The aim of NHS 111 online is to free up clinical call handlers’ time so they can prioritise callers with symptoms. People are asked to input their postcode, gender, and age – and are then asked specific questions about their symptoms.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “We know that 111 has come under pressure as people have understandably turned to the service for help, support and advice which is why we are ploughing in funding to increase staff available to field calls.
“The public is also now benefiting from the new NHS 111 online service which is helping increase capacity and free up clinicians time by offering specific help and advice on coronavirus at the touch of a button.”
In an opinion piece last week, cardiology registrar Dr Dominic Pimenta wrote that the NHS “isn’t ready” for the demand that coronavirus could place on the health service. “There is no cavalry coming. The cavalry has been propping us up for years already,” he said.
“At worst, some estimates show up to 60% of the UK could be infected with Covid-19 – that’s 42 million people, with 2.1 million needing intensive care. That’s the mother of all nightmare scenarios.
“A much more hopeful 1% estimate would mean less than 700,000 people would be infected, and 35,000 would need intensive care – that’s still nine times as many beds as we have now. That’s still a nightmare scenario.”
NHS England said the public can play their part in slowing the spread of the virus by following public health advice including washing their hands, covering their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze, and putting used tissues in the bin immediately.
Visit 111.nhs.uk for advice.
- Update: This article originally stated Nick Stylianou was a BBC news producer. This was incorrect and we have amended the article accordingly.