A new triage system for accident and emergency departments is to be piloted with NHS 111 being the first point of contact for accessing urgent medical care.

The pilot scheme is currently live in Cornwall, Portsmouth and SE Hampshire and Blackpool, and has just begun in Warrington. The aim will be for patients to access the right service and avoid unnecessary visits to emergency departments.

NHS 111 will build on its role during the pandemic to direct patients to the most clinically appropriate service, including emergency departments, an urgent treatment centre, a GP or mental health professional. Based on what works best during the pilots, this approach will be rolled out to all trusts from December this year.

Each year there are 14.4 million A&E attendances in England that arrive without referral by 111, a GP or in an ambulance, as well as 2.1 million attendances that don’t result in any admission or treatment. Those facing a life-threatening emergency should continue to dial 999 immediately. 

New funding to expand and update 25 A&E departments

In addition, A&Es in 25 hospitals across England will receive an additional £150 million to expand and upgrade, ensuring they have the physical space to treat patients, manage patient flow and improve infection control.

Dr Katherine Henderson, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: "Expansion of NHS 111 will help patients to be seen more quickly by the service most appropriate to their needs. We are pleased to have reached the consultation phase of how A&E performance is measured with a focus on the safe, timely care of the very sickest patients, and look forward to the publication of the proposals.

"A further boost to capital funding to help redevelop our most challenged emergency departments is very welcome and vital to help ensure social distancing and reduce the spread of infection. Crowding must be eliminated from emergency departments – now more than ever – and this is a helpful step towards tackling that problem."

The funding will expand waiting areas and increase the number of treatment cubicles, helping boost A&E capacity by providing additional space and reducing overcrowding. Projects will be completed by the start of next year so hospitals benefit from the upgrades during the peak of winter.

Dr Cliff Mann, NHS National Clinical Director for Urgent and Emergency Care, said: "While emergency admissions are now back to near normal levels and 999 calls are actually above usual, Covid-19 infection control means rethinking how we safely look after people who might previously have been to an emergency department for a more minor condition. Local teams are working hard to expand and adapt services to ensure people can continue to get the care they need safely, whether that’s in hospital or closer to home.

"This additional investment will help us continue the development of NHS 111 and provide a broader range of services, with direct booking that will ensure all patients can see the right clinicians in the right setting, and address the extra challenges posed by Covid-19 so that emergency departments can safely treat those patients who do require their services."