The ambulance service has confirmed it has requested military support as it struggles to cope with unprecedented demand.
South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS), which covers Hampshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, has asked via NHS England and is awaiting the outcome.
The NHS organisation says September and October were particularly challenging and the first two weeks of October especially difficult. Call centre demand is 50 per cent above forecasted levels and 999 demand is 13% above 2019 levels.
Handover at hospitals remains challenging and at its peak in late afternoons and evenings and last month SCAS lost 6,500 hours in Portsmouth
Impacts to staff are being felt, including increased sickness, missed meal breaks, late finishes and impacts on health and wellbeing
The number of phone calls made to the 111 service have increased by more than 30 per cent for South Central Ambulance Service.
Speaking at a Hampshire County Council meeting, the trust’s head of the 111 service, Mark Rowell, said while the demand is mostly related to Covid-19, many are also using the service because they can’t get an appointment with a GP.
He said: “This increase is partly due to the pandemic, but in-house demand has also crept up.
“The question is why people couldn’t get an appointment before contacting us – when they call 111 they’re getting a good service, but sometimes they don’t get that beforehand.
“It’s quite a pressurised environment – we’ve had to reprofile and restructure.”
Further spikes have also occurred when children have gone back to school, both in September and after the half-term holiday.
Figures from NHS England show that as of October this year, the average call to Scas’ 111 service is answered in 851 seconds, which is longer than the national average of 587 seconds.
Scas also confirmed that between April to September this year, the call answer rate was 48.5 per cent, and that compared to 2019, demand has increased by more than 50 per cent.
Mr Rowell told councillors that if the system thinks a patient has been waiting too long on the phone, they will be transferred to another 111 provider.
More than 100 new call handlers have been hired by SCAS to cope with demand.
“Over the last four months we have brought in around 140 call handlers into the 111 call service,” Mr Rowell said.
“These are people who see us as their gateway into working for the NHS long-term, and we believe this increased demand is here to stay.”
The service has also seen a shift to people reporting their symptoms online, rather than over the phone.
In September this year, 11,867 people used the online 111 service, compared to 4,219 in March
Mr Rowell added that SCAS has more GPs available over the phone via the 111 service than other providers in the surrounding area.
Roger Batterbury, chairman of Healthwatch Portsmouth, said: “During 2020 Healthwatch were involved in discussions with Portsmouth Hospitals University Trust about this new 111 booking process for non-life-threatening urgent treatment at QA.
“At an early point before the new system was launched we suggested a strong media campaign to introduce local people to this new system.
“We are not totally convinced that information about the new system has reached enough people yet.
“Healthwatch is very aware of the increased demand on the local 111 telephone service, with South Central Ambulance Service recently advising people via social media to contact them online, as demand was so high for the 111 telephone service.
“This is worrying for those people who do not have access to the internet being asked to contact 111 in this way.”