A new NHS 111 online service has been put in place to help people get advice about coronavirus, as enquiries to the service about the outbreak have surged.
Initially people concerned they may have been exposed to coronavirus have been told not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital, but to phone the 111 service instead.
Now the public are being urged to use the dedicated online tool first as call handlers have been struggling to cope with demand. Callers have had to wait hours and sometimes days to speak to someone for clinical advice.
The online tool was launched last week and more than 35,000 people used it in a single day over the weekend.
The NHS in England is also ploughing an initial extra £1.7 million in to 111 to offer more clinical advice over the phone. Further funding will also provide 500 additional initial call responders with the capacity to answer around 20,000 more calls every day. That investment will increase if demand continues to rise.
Enquiries to 111 jumped by a quarter last week after advice for travellers who had been in Italy changed. The 111 service tells callers whether they require a test and helps to arrange one for those who need it.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “We know that 111 call volumes have been high and people have understandably turned to the service for help, support and advice which is why we are ploughing in £1.7 million to increase staff available to field calls.
“The public is also now benefitting 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 and has already had more than 70,000 hits since launched on Wednesday.”
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The service is experiencing a major surge in 111 calls and, in a positive move, we are seeing much more activity through the 111 online service. We do not want anyone who thinks they are at risk presenting at A&E or their GP surgery – protecting those front-line services is a key priority.”
In addition to the home diagnostic testing programme that is currently being rolled out in every part of the country, the NHS has introduced new, more convenient and efficient ways of testing such as the “drive-through” centre that has started operating in west London.