The research prompted warnings that the Government’s “Stay Home” message may have had a “devastating” impact by deterring thousands of patients in medical crisis from seeking help. 

The study, led by the University of Leeds, tracked more than 50,000 patients who had a heart attack and were treated at 99 major hospitals in England before or during lockdown. 

It follows warnings that the number of people attending Accident and Emergency departments fell by 50 per cent at some points during the pandemic.

Previously, the head of the NHS had said most of the cases which stopped attending A&E involved minor conditions which could have been treated elsewhere.

In June, Sir Simon said a review of the type of cases which did not show up at A&E departments in April found that “by a ratio of about 14 to one, they were for the most part, more minor conditions that could be treated, either on a booked basis or at an urgent treatment centre, or in general practice.”

NHS medical director Prof Stephen Powis said the “111 first” model would help to ensure that A&E departments do not become crowded, which was increasingly important since the advent of Covid.

He told MPs that the move also aimed to make sure people got the most suitable care. 

“We want to move, as we wanted to move before Covid, increasingly to a 111 first model that ensures we do everything we can to give appropriate advice to signpost people to the most appropriate place for treatment”.

NHS England’s latest board papers state: “The social ‘lockdown’ to control the spread of COVID-19 saw a sharp reduction in attendance at Emergency Departments (EDs), and a large increase calls to the NHS 111 service and use of NHS 111 Online. 

Subsequently call volumes have returned to near normal and levels of attendance to ED are increasing. 

“The NHS ‘111 First’ programme is working to introduce a number of initiatives to reduce the number of face-to-face contacts patients will need to experience in accessing urgent care services.”

The President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine has said A&E appointments will help to prevent overcrowing when the NHS is attempting to maintain social distancing. 

Dr Katherine Henderson said it would cause “enormous harm” to patients if Britain returned to crowded casualty units.

An NHS spokesperson said: “GPs, nurses, paramedics and other staff working in the NHS 111 phone and online service have already played a key role in helping millions of people get the right care and advice safely over the last six months – whether for coronavirus or any other urgent medical needs – and can already book people who need it into face to face appointments with local clinicians or arrange home visits.

“As the NHS now prepares for winter, we are further improving that offer with more clinicians and better links into local emergency departments, and will be launching a major public information campaign to ensure that people know how they can get the care they need in the safest way possible.”

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