Almost 28,000 NHS 111 calls were abandoned each day over the Christmas and New Year period, leaving nearly 400,000 “distressed and unwell” callers without medical advice, new health figures show.
As the NHS continues to battle under one of its toughest winters yet, health experts warned that lives were being put at risk as services struggle to keep up with demand. Yesterday (9 January) it was confirmed by Unison that ambulance crew strikes would go-ahead this week after the government could not agree on a pay deal.
The proportion of NHS 111 calls being abandoned by callers before a call handler has answered them has worsened in comparison to the same period last year. In the two weeks to 1 January, 390,000 calls were abandoned, representing more than a third (33.4%) of all calls, according to data published by NHS England. During the same period last year (two weeks to 2 January) 21.1% of calls were abandoned, representing 245,000 calls.
Last week NHS 111 answered the second highest number of calls ever in a week – 410,618, up from 365,258 last week and 382,021 last year. NHS England said it was levels of demand not seen since the start of the Covid pandemic.
This winter has seen significant demand on the health service with flu and Covid cases surging and hospitals reaching potentially dangerous occupancy. Health chiefs recently warned that this year’s flu season could be more severe than in the years before the pandemic and urged people to stay at home and wear masks if unwell.
Deputy director of research at the Nuffield Trust think-tank, Sarah Scobie, said: “It’s not surprising that more NHS 111 calls are being abandoned as demand has risen to very high levels this winter, but behind these figures are distressed and unwell people struggling to get the medical help they need.
“Delays in these services could put patient safety at risk and may also put primary care and other urgent care services under more pressure as people seek care elsewhere when they don’t get a timely response.” .
Regionally, callers in the South East were most likely to abandon their calls. Over the last two weeks 42.6% were abandoned. This was followed by the East of England with 36.1% and the North West with 35.7%. In London 32.3% of calls were abandoned, 31.6% were abandoned in the South West, 31.1% in the Midlands and 24.3% in the North East and Yorkshire.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said in a statement last week that it was “vital” people make the most of services like 111 online and only use 999 in an emergency. The NHS says 111 should be called to discuss “complex” medical problems, to get end of life care or to report a death, or to report child protection or vulnerable adult concerns and has been encouraging the use of its 111 online services in a bid to ease pressure on call handlers.
Health and social care secretary, Steve Barclay, said a surge in Covid and flu cases were causing significant pressure on the heath system and urged eligible people to come forward for a flu and Covid jab.
He said: “Alongside record funding, including up to £14.1 billion for health and social care over the next two years, we are urgently implementing measures to improve flow through hospitals, creating the equivalent of 7,000 new beds and investing £500 million to speed up hospital discharge, freeing up beds and helping get ambulances swiftly back out on the road.”