Fewer people called the NHS 111 service in Thames Valley last month, despite increased pressure on the helpline nationally amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Health think tank the Nuffield Trust said A&E attendances in England have dropped in line with soaring numbers of non-emergency calls to the helpline elsewhere, sparking fears that people in need of urgent medical care are putting off seeking help.

NHS England data shows that the Thames Valley 111 helpline received 40,026 calls in March – down by 42% from February and a decrease of ​19,246 compared to March 2019.

It meant the Thames Valley NHS 111 service was one of just two to see call numbers drop from February to March.

However, of the calls received last month, 10,949 (27 per cent) were abandoned by callers kept waiting for 30 seconds or more – a much higher proportion than the 1 per cent abandoned a year previously in Thames Valley.

The NHS said 111 service levels started to be hit by Covid-19-related demands from mid-February, resulting in a sharp increase in national figures last month.

Across England, the helpline received almost 3 million calls in March – an average of 96,000 per day – more than doubling the 1.4 million calls received in March 2019.

Sarah Scobie, the Nuffield Trust's deputy director of research, said NHS 111 is a “critical tool” in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

She added: “The NHS has expanded capacity for NHS 111 by hiring more call handlers and developing a dedicated online service for people concerned about symptoms of COVID-19.

“In March 2020, we saw a sudden increase in calls to 111 call centres. This trend is reflected in recent NHS performance stats, which has also seen the number of people attending A&E fall by a fifth from the previous month.

“This could indicate some success in the government’s strategy to direct people with suspected COVID-19 symptoms through the NHS 111 service and take pressure off frontline services.

“While the increase in NHS 111 calls and the fall in hospital attendances suggest that people are making careful choices about going to hospitals, some clinicians fear that those who do require urgent medical treatment may have been put off from seeking help due to fear of infection and the desire to reduce pressure on overstretched health and services.”

A dedicated 111 online service helping people to get quick advice about coronavirus received 1 million visitors in just under a week following its launch at the start of March.

NHS England is urging people only to use the 111 phone number if they cannot get help online.

An NHS spokesman said: “Every NHS service is stepping up as part of a nationwide and co-ordinated response to the coronavirus, with NHS 111 continuing to play a crucial role, not just in the NHS response to the coronavirus outbreak – with staff seeing a 60 per cent jump in calls – but in making sure people can get help for all the other health issues that they and their families are facing.

“The NHS remains open for business for all urgent health problems.”