When should you call NHS 111?
People who believe they’re experiencing symptoms of the virus should not go to their GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital. Instead, they’re urged to contact NHS 111, but should expect to wait on hold for some time – possibly up to an hour – before getting through to a call handler.
Callers are then asked basic questions – personal details, symptoms, whether they’re calling with a coronavirus concern – before having an over-the-phone assessment where they’re asked more about their symptoms, including what they’re most worried about.
They might be told to self-isolate or told to expect a callback from a clinician who can discuss the issue further – however some people have waited over a day for this call-back. Their details might also be passed to local health protection teams who may then test them for the virus if they’re deemed a ‘possible case’.
Will you definitely get tested if you call?
Even if people are experiencing symptoms of the virus – a dry cough, difficulty breathing, fever – there’s no guarantee they’ll receive a test when they call.
Some people are still struggling to get tested, though. Despite having a cough and a fever, Sam Freedman, CEO of Ark’s Education Partnerships Group, couldn’t get tested because he hadn’t been to any affected countries or in contact with a known case.
“This seems a major flaw in the testing system,” said Freedman, who is self-isolating in the meantime, staying in – and sleeping in – a different room to his wife. “It’s very annoying though as I’ll have no way of knowing if I have it [coronavirus],” he said.
Freedman isn’t alone in his concerns. If people with symptoms are missing out on testing, there are worries the latest figures on how many people have coronavirus are largely inaccurate.
I’m scared and angry.#COVID19
In my 70s, COPD, compromised heart and kidneys.
I’ve got the worst flu I’ve ever had (despite flu jab), and it’s unlike any flu I’ve had before.
It fits the description of COVID exactly, but NHS111 says it isn’t, because I haven’t been abroad.
— Sam Butler. (I know my place, Young Master!) ⚫ (@SamInFleet) March 9, 2020
So someone I know recently travelled via Innsbruck to Manchester airport, via same airport and route as confirmed cases from Greater Manchester, and is now quite sick. Rings @NHSuk 111 and are they interested in testing? Not unless they’ve been to Iran.#COVID2019uk#coronavirus
— Adam K Dean (@imdsm) March 10, 2020
Prior to 10 March, people who had returned from high risk areas or those who had come into contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 appeared to be the priority for testing and were considered a ‘possible case’.
However on 10 March, the government updated its advice on who could be deemed a ‘possible case’ to include patients who require hospital admission and who appear to have pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome or flu-like illness, regardless of whether they’d been abroad. So testing is more likely.
How will the UK deal with demand for tests?
Just under 25,000 people in Britain have now been tested for the virus – the results have so far been analysed in Public Health England (PHE) laboratories.
To help with demand, NHS hospital labs will now start testing swab samples from people who are displaying symptoms of the virus. An A&E nurse told the Guardian tests are taking longer than anticipated to be processed, but Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at PHE, said the vast majority of results have been processed within 24 hours of receiving the sample.
Prior to now, PHE was only able to process 1,500 tests a day across the UK, however it’s thought that using NHS labs will enable 8,000 more samples to be analysed each day of the week. It’s important to remember as the testing programme is scaled up, positive test result confirmation will be accelerated, helping people take the right action to recover or get treatment.
The NHS and PHE will also start carrying out surveillance testing on others, including people in wards and surgeries showing signs of the virus. However as it stands, people who don’t require hospitalisation due to showing symptoms alone won’t be tested.
In response to the demand on the NHS 111 helpline, an NHS spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “Additional investment means that more call handlers have already been recruited to NHS 111 to direct callers with concerns about the virus, recruitment will continue over the coming weeks and further investment will be made as required.
“Anyone with concerns about coronavirus can also use the NHS 111 online service, and while the 111 phone line is understandably busy, and people may have to wait longer than usual, all enquiries are being responded to thanks to hard working NHS staff.”
The advice as it stands is to wash hands, cover the mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and put used tissues in the bin immediately.