People are being urged to go online if they need care for something urgent but not life-threatening, instead of rushing to busy A&E departments, as the health service faces a “winter like no other”.
NHS England’s national medical director, Prof Stephen Powis, said the coming months are likely to be “extremely tough” due to pressures from a combination of Covid-19 and seasonal flu.
Television advertisements, social media posts and billboards all form part of the “Help Us, Help You” campaign, promoting the NHS 111 online service, aimed at giving advice and support to patients with urgent but not life-threatening medical issues.
NHS England said the online service can direct patients to urgent treatment centres and walk-in clinics, GP surgeries, pharmacies and emergency dental services. If needed, the patient can have a call with a healthcare professional.
It comes as health leaders warned of pressures on hospitals, and ambulance services told of having “lost” 35,000 hours through queueing outside busy emergency departments.
The latest performance data for England shows that the NHS experienced its busiest September on record.
Major A&E departments treated more than 1.39 million people during September, the highest ever for the month.
Ambulances responded to a record 76,000 life threatening call-outs, while 999 took nearly 1m calls in September.
NHS 111 also saw record demand, taking a call every seven seconds and more than 1.9m calls in total across August.
Powis said: “As we approach an extremely tough winter like no other, using NHS 111 online first will ensure everyone who needs medical advice can access it quickly and conveniently, alongside other services, while allowing us to care for the most seriously ill and injured patients in our A&Es.
“So, if you need urgent care but it is not life-threatening, visit 111 online first – we will put you in touch with a healthcare professional if needed and help you get the treatment you need – and please continue to come forward for care, including through 111, your pharmacist or GP if you prefer.”
He also stressed the importance of people taking up the offer of a “life-saving” Covid jab as well as the flu vaccine if eligible.
On Saturday, one ambulance service declared a critical incident in the face of “extreme pressures” and an “overwhelming” volume of calls.
South Central ambulance service – covering Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire – pleaded with the public to be wise when considering whether to call, reminding people that ambulances should only be called in the event of life-threatening illnesses and injuries.