Trial will ask patients to call 111 before going to A&E - here's how it will work

Under the new trial, people will be discouraged from attending A&E, instead being directed to call 111 first. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A new trial will ask patients requiring A&E to book an appointment through NHS 111 to reduce pressure on emergency services.

The trial is being piloted in Blackpool, Hampshire, Cornwall and Portsmouth, and a pilot has also just started in Warrington.

In these areas, patients seeking A&E help are being encouraged to call 111 - unless they have an immediate, life-threatening condition.

What is the purpose of the 111 trial?

The idea is to help direct patients to the most clinically-appropriate services for their need and reduce pressure on A&E departments, which set to face a spike in coronavirus cases on top of usual winter pressures.

Patients are still able to turn up at A&E without an appointment, but officials have said they'll likely find longer waits than if they'd called 111.

The Department of Health and Social Care has said extra call handlers will be brought on board to manage the work load alongside more clinicians.

If the pilots are deemed successful, the system could be rolled out across all trusts by December.

Later in the year, a campaign called 'Help Us Help You' will launch, urging people to use the new service.

Extra funding for A&Es

In addition, the government has pledged an extra £150 million of funding to upgrade and expand 25 A&Es to improve infection control and overcrowding ahead of a winter where a spike in coronavirus cases is expected.

This comes on top of the £300 million promised to trusts in order to upgrade their facilities.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC: "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."

Data from the Department for Health and Social Care suggests there are 14.4 million A&E attendances in England that have not gone through a GP, via an ambulance or through NHS 111. 

The department said 2.1 million attendances don't end in treatment or admission.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, told the BBC the 111 scheme could have advantages for many older people, including avoiding waiting in crowded A&Es.

"However, it is important to stress that older people who have difficulty using the phone will not be turned away if they go straight to A&E as before," she said.

A new target for waiting times in A&E is expected as ministers move to scrap the current four-hour target.

Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told the BBC: "Expansion of NHS 111 will help patients to be seen more quickly by the service most appropriate to their needs.

"We are pleased to have reached the consultation phase of how A&E performance is measured with a focus on the safe, timely care of the very sickest patients, and look forward to the publication of the proposals."