Tens of thousands of NHS 111 calls were abandoned in the North West last month amid fears that a national surge in enquiries about coronavirus is piling pressure on the system.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged people who can to use the NHS’s new online 111 service for information on the virus instead of calling.
In the same speech, he labelled the outbreak “the worst public health crisis for a generation”.
Callers to the North West 111 line hung up before being answered by an advisor on 30,267 occasions in February, after being kept waiting for 30 seconds or more, new NHS England figures show.
At 16 per cent of calls, this was significantly higher than the 6.9 per cent abandoned the previous February. Overall, the helpline received 189,000 calls over the month – a six per cent rise from January and 18 per cent more than the previous February.
NHS 111 is a 24-hour helpline for patients seeking non-urgent medical help, which replaced NHS Direct and some GP out-of-hours services in 2014.
The service received 1.6m calls across England in February – a record high for the month. It was also eight per cent more than in January, which was the first rise in the number of calls from January to February in seven years.
Callers hung up after at least 30 seconds in eight per cent of cases – one of the highest rates of abandoned calls on record. On March 4, the NHS launched a dedicated 111 online service to help people get quick advice about coronavirus.
In a statement, Mr Johnson said: “There will be detailed information available on the NHS website and from 111 online.
"In the wake of the Government’s move to the “delay” phase of handling of the outbreak, the Prime Minister added: “I urge people, who think in view of what we’re saying about their potential symptoms that they should stay at home, not to call 111 but to use the internet for information if they can.”
Helen Buckingham, director of strategy at the Nuffield Trust, said the increase in calls and drop in performance were clearly related to the new coronavirus.
She added: “In particular, it looks as though far more people are calling during the week than usual, which may be driving the pressure.
“The NHS knows that as the outbreak continues they will urgently need to expand capacity to handle the patients being asked to call 111 safely.”
The NHS recently reported that more than 1m people had sought advice about coronavirus on its new online service.
It added that 111 calls in the first week of the month were up by onw third compared to the same time last year, and that around 500 extra call handlers had been trained.
Concerns were recently raised that the helpline was giving incorrect advice on coronavirus after it emerged that travellers returning from Italy were being told there was no need to self-isolate.
An NHS spokesman said staff have “pulled out all the stops over the last three months” to help people prepare for the spread of coronavirus, while dealing with record demand.
He added: “It is particularly important now that the public helps NHS staff by following health advice, including washing their hands and covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze, and for those worried about symptoms, they can use the new 111 online service for help and advice on coronavirus.”