People urged not to avoid A&E during pandemic as 111 calls soar

People are being urged not to avoid going to A&E after new figures showed calls the NHS non-emergency line are soaring but patients heading to the emergency department are down.

New data shows that throughout March the South and Mid Essex NHS 111 line was called 73,514 times up 88 per cent on the previous month and more than double the 35,355 calls received in March 2019.

But with 34 per cent of those calls being abandoned by callers kept waiting more than 30 seconds and A&E attendances falling, Health think tank the Nuffield Trust raised concerns that some people in need of urgent medical care are putting off seeking help.

Sarah Scobie, the Nuffield Trust’s deputy director of research said: “This could indicate some success in the government’s strategy to direct people with suspected COVID-19 symptoms through the NHS 111 service and take pressure off frontline services.

“While the increase in NHS 111 calls and the fall in hospital attendances suggest that people are making careful choices about going to hospitals, some clinicians fear that those who do require urgent medical treatment may have been put off from seeking help due to fear of infection and the desire to reduce pressure on overstretched health and services.”

Southend Councillor Trevor Harp, who oversees health in Southend, said people should not be put off attending A&E if they believe they need to.

“The advice all along has been people should not be put off going to A&E if they think it is necessary,” said Mr Harp.

“Protocols have been put in place in all A&Es across the country to ensure that it is safe for people to go to hospital. Certainly, if you have had an accident then you should go as normal, just as we wouldn’t expect people not to call an ambulance if they need it.”

Mr Harp said the major increase in call numbers could also be down to initial government advice in March which said that if you have symptoms of Covid-19 you should call 111.

GP Dr Krishna Chaturvedi, based at Shoebury Health Centre, said: “People do get frightened if we say they may have to go to hospital and you do have to be cautious but you don’t have to be concerned.”

He suggested the reason a high number of callers may abandon calls to the 111 service is simply down to not wanting to be stuck on hold or it could be a slight “fear factor”.

“To be honest, most people in my experience go through their GP if they are desperate,” he added.

“We are able to do a consultation and even now, it is like normal, I still speak to 12 or 13 patients in the morning through a video consultation and these are people can be from every age group.”

Across England, the 111 helpline received almost 3 million calls in March – an average of 96,000 per day – more than doubling the 1.4 million calls received in March 2019.

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter