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NHS 111 call traffic increases ‘substantially’ due to coronavirus fears

Exclusive Urgent care leaders have warned that the number of calls made to NHS 111 and subsequently abandoned by patients unable to get through has spiked due to coronavirus fears.

Dr Simon Abrams, chairman of Urgent Health UK, told Pulse that around 25% of calls are being abandoned by patients who fail to get through to an operator within 30 seconds.

Official figures show that around 3% were abandoned in January before coronavirus (Covid-19) fears.

NHS England was unable to confirm the figure but said that ‘all calls are being responded to’.

Dr Abrams also said that GPs in one area are ‘reluctant’ to sign up for urgent care shifts due to the risk of disruption to their practice by the virus.

At an Urgent Health UK meeting yesterday, a number of out-of-hours leaders said that coronavirus has impacted 111 services by increasing call abandonment rates ‘substantially’ – to around 25% according to some members – Dr Abrams said.

He said: ‘People were quoting figures of 25% of calls being abandoned [after 30 seconds], the implication being that there’s an awful lot of extra telephone traffic to 111. They’re ringing and then they’re getting fed up of waiting for the phone to be answered.’

Dr Abrams added that this may affect GP workload: ‘If you can’t get through to 111 – the service that’s meant to be there to provide you with the right guidance – then where do you go? You can go to A&E or you can go to your GP, both of which are not appropriate for suspected cases [of coronavirus].

‘If 111 is the service we’re meant to be encouraging people to use in this situation, then there needs to be the capacity for it to handle that volume of calls.’

A spokesperson for NHS England said that ‘all calls are being responded to’, because extra demand is re-routed to another region.

They said: ‘Anyone with concerns about coronavirus can call NHS 111 and – while the service is understandably busy and people may have to wait longer than usual – all calls are being responded to thanks to hard-working NHS staff.

‘In addition, extra investment means the NHS is recruiting more call handlers to support those already working around the clock to give expert advice to callers on coronavirus and other medical concerns.’

Dr Abrams also told Pulse that in one area, there have been difficulties filling urgent care shifts because GPs are ‘reluctant’ to sign up due to the risk of their practice being disrupted by coronavirus.

He said: ‘GPs were reluctant to sign up because of the risk of contact with somebody that might lead them to have to go into quarantine for two weeks and the impact that would have on their practice.’

GPs have raised a number of concerns about NHS preparedness for the spread of an infectious disease, including a lack of available protective equipment and claims that NHS 111 was signposting potential coronavirus cases to GP practices.

A slew of GP practices in England – at least 20 at the latest count – have been forced to shut for cleaning as the number potential coronavirus cases in the country continues to grow.

Pulse reported earlier this week that 100 GP practices across England are to take part in opportunistic testing for coronavirus.