Patients calling NHS 111 are being left waiting for operators to answer 20 times longer than the expected time, according to new figures.
The service aims for calls to be answered in less than 20 seconds on average but the latest provisional data shows the average answer time in July was 395 seconds, or six and a half minutes.
Only 43.2 per cent of all calls were answered within one minute, down from 52 per cent in January, the Telegraph reports.
The NHS is seeking to bolster the 111 line ahead of what it expects to be an overwhelmingly busy winter period as an expected surge in fuel poverty threatens to increase the number of seasonal deaths.
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Amanda Pritchard, head of the NHS, told hospitals to start preparing public health campaigns to help “minimise” pressure on A&E departments over winter.
Ms Pritchard said in a letter to hospital bosses that planning had begun earlier than usual as “pressure on the NHS is likely to be substantial, particularly in urgent and emergency care”.
An appendix to the letter asks hospitals to “implement your winter communications strategy to support the public to minimise pressures on urgent and emergency services”.
The health service is planning a renewed “Help Us Help You” campaign launching later this year will remind the public to only use 999 and A&E in case of genuine emergencies.
An NHS spokesperson said: “As is the case every winter, the NHS will encourage people to use NHS 111 for urgent medical help and as ever, and people who need A&E or 999 should use those services – we will deliver the usual Help Us Help You campaign later in the year to support people to access this care.
“The NHS has already announced plans to significantly increase hospital capacity and resilience ahead of winter, in addition to a new contract with St John Ambulance to provide extra support.”
NHS 111 is a helpline and online service for medical advice that should be used in situations that are not life-threatening but require immediate attention.