The A&E doctor said the amount of clinical input into 111 had increased during the pandemic, so patients were being given a wider range of advice.

But she said changes should go further, with patients offered “booked appointments” into emergency care and urgent treatment centres instead of going directly to A&E, while those with known existing problems could be sent directly to specialists. 

Such changes should be introduced permanently, Dr Henderson told the Commons health committee.

“We were becoming very, very crowded and we had people in corridors – and the idea that you could have a vulnerable 80-year-old with a hip fracture in a corridor or next to someone else who could have Covid is just impossible,” she said.

At the same hearing, patients told how they had been “left in the lurch” when vital treatment was postponed.  

Cancer patient Daloni Carlisle, from Sevenoaks in Kent, said she was left “absolutely in limbo” when chemotherapy was delayed for months despite scans having shown spread of the disease. 

She said: “For most of the lockdown I’ve been sitting here at home, knowing that all the cancers are growing, knowing that the tumours in my lung, in my liver, in my spine are all busily growing – and absolutely no word from the hospital about when the treatment might start.”

Ms Carlisle, who said she had now started the treatment, added: “I’m a single mum with teenagers at home. My priority is to stay alive, and I think I can’t tell you how difficult that limbo period has been.”

Professor Derek Alderson, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, urged the NHS to introduce “Covid-light sites” carrying out planned surgery, with regular testing of staff and patients to minimise infection risk. 

He called on the NHS to extend its contract with the private sector so that thousands of operations could be outsourced to such facilities in a bid to reduce waiting times.

The British Dental Association (BDA) told the same hearing that around eight million courses of treatment had been cancelled during the coronavirus pandemic. Practices that had been offering 150 appointments a day are now offering as few as 10 because of the extra time spent on disinfection, Mick Armstrong warned. 

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