Patients will be asked to book into A&Es using NHS 111 from this winter, the Department of Health and Social Care has confirmed.
The new NHS 111 First model will be piloted in at least one hospital trust in each region starting this month, and rolled out to all trusts by December.
The news comes three years after Pulse exclusively revealed that NHS England and the Government had been in talks about such pilots.
The move to make NHS 111 the ‘front door’ to urgent care aims to avoid 2.1m A&E attendances in England that result in no admission or treatment.
NHS 111 will instead direct patients to ‘the most clinically appropriate service’, including GP practices or urgent treatment centres, the DHSC said.
A public communications campaign will launch ‘later this year’ to ‘direct people to the right service’.
Patients who turn up at A&E without booking will still be seen, but the DHSC warned they ‘may end up waiting longer than patients with similar health issues who booked an appointment through NHS 111’.
The DHSC also said it will invest £24m to increase 111 call handling capacity, including having ‘more clinicians on hand to provide expert advice and guidance’.
Pilots are currently underway in Cornwall, Portsmouth, South East Hampshire, Blackpool and Warrington.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘During the peak of the pandemic we saw millions of people using NHS 111 to get the best possible advice on Covid-19, and other urgent NHS services.
‘These pilots will build on this and test whether we can deliver quicker access to the right care, provide a better service for the public and ensure our dedicated NHS staff aren’t overwhelmed.’
Dr Cliff Mann, NHS national clinical director for urgent and emergency care, added: ‘This additional investment will help us continue the development of NHS 111 and provide a broader range of services, with direct booking that will ensure all patients can see the right clinicians in the right setting, and address the extra challenges posed by Covid-19 so that emergency departments can safely treat those patients who do require their services.’
In July, NHS England board papers revealed the ambition for all A&E providers across England to implement a ‘minimum specification’ of the ‘NHS 111 first’ model by December 2020.
Mr Hancock also announced an investment of £150m for the expansion and upgrading of 25 hospital A&E departments and a consultation – to be launched before December – on A&E performance measurements such as the four-hour waiting target.
NHS England confirmed to Pulse two weeks ago that the pilots were set to expand, with the ambition that all NHS 111 services in England would roll out the model by this winter.
At the same time, GPs working for the Covid telephone hotline claimed that NHS England was expanding its scope beyond coronavirus – potentially into the ‘111 First’ service – without increasing their pay.
NHS Digital figures revealed last month that NHS 111 was accessed by 30m users since the start of the pandemic.