Advice for accessing NHS health services following the Covid-19 pandemic

Many people have faced delays and difficulties with NHS services during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly when booking GP appointments. However, with Government now focused on regaining a sense of normality, we’ve shared the latest advice on accessing NHS health services.

Zenya Smith

Zenya Smith

Content Manager

What are the government guidelines on GP appointments?

Throughout 2020 and 2021, many primary care services, including GP surgeries, shifted to telephone appointments to limit the number of people arriving at surgeries and the impact of Covid-19.

However, towards the end of last year, the Government announced greater support to help GPs offer more in person, face to face appointments to those who preferred them. This move was particularly important for older people who may have found it tricky to communicate with their doctor over the phone because of hearing or cognitive issues.

However, many surgeries are still operating cautiously. The NHS asks that patients only visit if they have been told to.

Why is it so hard to get a routine GP appointment?

Unfortunately like many frontline services, GP surgeries have been, and continue to be impacted by staffing shortages and absences due to Covid-19.

GPs don’t want to keep patients waiting, but need to ensure they are seen in the right order – so that those with the most serious conditions or health complaints are seen first.

It’s also important that those with weak immune systems, such as those living with cancer or diabetes are able to keep up with their routine visits and tests safely.

This has meant that some surgeries are still screening patients over the telephone to work out who needs an in-person appointment and who doesn’t during the busiest times. This is called triaging.

Download the NHS mobile app

If you can’t get through to your surgery by phone, you may have more luck booking a GP appointment through the NHS app. You can also use the app to order repeat prescriptions, find health care advice, and access your health records.

Create an account on The NHS website

If you or someone you’re supporting doesn’t have a smartphone, they can still do most of the above through the NHS website, including ordering repeat subscriptions. Some surgeries may also allow you to book appointments this way too, you can check whether your surgery does here.

Consult your pharmacist 

If you need over the counter medications (i.e – medications that don’t require a prescription) or have a common or minor ailment such as a skin rash, or earache for example, many local pharmacies can offer advice, and even have private areas for consultations.

Check your GP’s website 

To help free up phone lines, some GP practices offer online messaging services through their practice websites. Of course, these should only be used if your needs are not urgent.

Remember, if you’re feeling unwell or have a health concern, don’t wait to contact your GP. If you’re unable to get through by phone, you can always call the NHS’ out of hours number 111. 

Attending hospital appointments 

Many outpatient and hospital services have continued during the pandemic, and the NHS is working extremely hard to keep everyone safe while getting any form of hospital treatment.

If you’re feeling a bit apprehensive about attending an upcoming appointment, there are things you can do to help prepare.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more information 

Many hospitals will have their own guides to how they’re operating, and the precautions they are taking to prevent the spread of Covid-19, like this one from Guys and St. Thomas’ hospital.

Bring your appointment letter or text reminder

This will not only confirm you are meant to be there, but will usually provide relevant Covid-19 advice, as well as how to safely find your way around the hospital, which may have special routes mapped out to avoid crowding.

Don’t arrive too early

Aim to arrive at the right department 10 mins before your appointment – if you’re too early there may not be anywhere for you to wait.

Wear a mask when visiting NHS services, particularly if you're elderly or vulnerable
You may wish to continue wearing a face covering

Wear a mask if you’d like to

While there is no general law requiring you to wear a face mask, you, and others around the hospital may find it more reassuring to cover your nose and mouth if you can – especially when using amenities such as coffee shops, or when sitting in waiting areas.

Be as flexible as possible  

Staff shortages are still a possibility, meaning that some appointments may be cancelled, rescheduled or changed to a video call, rather than face to face. If you arrive for your appointment and a waiting area is full, for safety reasons you may be asked to wait outside too.

Don’t skip your appointment

If you’re worried about Covid-19, or are unable to attend a scheduled appointment for any reason, it’s important that you speak to the department directly. They will be able to provide reassurance, make alternative arrangements, or rebook for you. Skipping your appointment could result in you being referred back to your GP, and cause delays in your treatment.

What’s the cost of missed NHS hospital appointments?

It’s estimated that each missed hospital appointment costs the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales around £30. In England alone, it’s believed this adds up to over £216 million a year.

Can I accompany someone, or bring someone with me to an appointment?

The majority of hospitals are still asking that patients attend their appointments alone if they can.

However if you or someone you’re supporting has a communication requirement (for example, speaks a language that isn’t English, or uses sign language) struggles with understanding or memory, has a disability, or needs the support of a professional carer, then one other person will be permitted to attend the appointment. However, you may want to call the hospital to confirm this beforehand.

Support for getting to hospital appointments

Patient Transport Services – If you find it difficult to walk or struggle with mobility, your GP or the healthcare professional who referred you to hospital may be able to arrange for you to use a patient transport service.

Taxi services – Many hospitals and GP surgeries will have the phone numbers of local taxi services who are regularly used for pick ups or drop offs. While this isn’t always the cheapest option, it can provide peace of mind if you’re worried about, or unable to use public transport.

Age UK – The organisation runs transport services for older people in some parts of the country. These include wheelchair friendly minibus services, and schemes where a trusted local companion will travel with you.

The kindness of a carer or family member who drives – this option is usually preferable if your appointment is likely to wear you out, or leave you feeling out of sorts e.g some tests and outpatient procedures can cause lightheadedness or blurred vision.

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