NHS 111 will become the new “front door” to A&E to help slash crowding during the Covid crisis, according to Matt Hancock.
Sick Brits will be told to call the helpline first – with only urgent cases booked a hospital appointment under controversial new reforms.
Less unwell patients will be sent to GPs, urgent treatment centres, or local pharmacists.
Those facing a life-threatening emergency can still call 999 and seek an ambulance.
The Health Secretary will recommend the new approach as part £150 million boost for A&Es that aims to reduce pressure on hospitals.
It will be piloted in seven areas over autumn – Cornwall, Portsmouth and Hampshire and Blackpool – before national roll out by December.
Patients can still turn up in person, but will have to be assessed first and risk being sent away or waiting longer for treatment than those calling 111.
Mr Hancock said: “During the peak of the pandemic we saw millions of people using NHS 111 to get the best possible advice on Covid-19, and other urgent NHS services.
“These pilots will build on this and test whether we can deliver quicker access to the right care, provide a better service for the public and ensure our dedicated NHS staff aren’t overwhelmed.”
Ministers will also now consult on scrapping the four-hour A&E wait target.
Currently, hospitals must treat, admit or discharge 95 per cent of patients within this time.
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.”
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