In Depth

Did NHS 111 fail coronavirus patients in the early days of pandemic?

Campaign group calls for inquiry after accusing helpline of giving inadequate medical advice

Families of people who died from Covid-19 are demanding an inquiry into the NHS’s non-emergency 111 phoneline amid allegations that seriously ill callers were given incorrect advice during the peak of the pandemic.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which represents almost 2,000 people, claims many callers also struggled to get through to the health support service. The group has won widespread support after setting up an online petition calling for an independent investigation into the UK government’s handling of the pandemic.

What are the allegations?

Although not explicitly aiming its criticism at the NHS, the bereaved families group says that “approximately a fifth of its 1,800 members – more than 350 people – believe the 111 service failed to recognise how seriously ill their relatives were and direct them to appropriate care”, The Guardian reports.

Contactibility was a key issue, the newspaper adds, with many families saying they had trouble “even getting through to the 111 phone line, the designated first step, alongside 111 online, for people concerned they may have Covid-19”.

In a report released in April, the health service revealed that 38.7% of calls made to 111 in March were abandoned after waits of longer than 30 seconds for a response, compared with just 2.4% in March 2019. And of the calls that did get through to the service, 30.2% were answered within 60 seconds - down from 85% year-on-year.

Royal College of Emergency Medicine vice-president Adrian Boyle, a hospital consultant, told The Guardian that NHS 111 not being sufficiently “equipped” to cope in the early days of the crisis. 

A total of 2,962,751 calls were made to 111 in England in March, more than double the same period in 2019.

Some families who got through to the phoneline say call handlers “worked through fixed scripts and asked for yes or no answers, which led to their relatives being told they were not in need of medical care”, the paper adds.

Campaigner Jo Goodman - whose father, Stuart, died from coronavirus in April at the age of 72 - claims that “despite having very severe symptoms including skin discolouration, fainting, total lack of energy, inability to eat and breathlessness... this was not considered sufficient to be admitted to hospital or have an ambulance sent out.”

See no evil, hear no evil

The group’s website says that the campaign “isn’t about a blame game, so we don’t know why the government has refused to meet with us”.

The BBC reports that in early September, after a fouth rejection from No. 10, the group wrote to Boris Johnson for a fifth time asking to meet him. When quizzed by reporters about the request, the prime minister said he would “of course” meet anyone bereaved by Covid-19.

However, days later he told the group that he was “unable” to do so, in a letter that has since been made public.

Group co-founder Goodman describes the U-turn as “devastating”, adding: “The prime minister has done a 360 - dodging five letters, then agreeing on live TV to meet with us, and now quietly telling us he’s too busy. It’s heartless.”

Will an inquiry be held?

Back in July, Johnson committed to an “independent inquiry” into the coronavirus pandemic at some point “in the future”. No further details have been announced as yet.

report published by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last week urged the PM to ensure the inquiry is ready to begin in January.

The committee also said that any investigation should be headed by a “visibly impartial” figure who is “appointed through a process that is transparent”.

“The description of the role should be published, including the skills and experience required, and the preferred candidate subject to a hearing before the relevant select committee before assuming the role,” they added.

If you think you are experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, the government’s full guidance on next steps can be found here.

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