A government heath minister has said extra funding for NHS 111 could ease GP and accident and emergency backlogs throughout the country.

On a visit to a 111 call centre in Welwyn Garden City yesterday (Wednesday, July 27), Minister for Health Maria Caulfield MP said the government has introduced "targeted" funding to ease NHS waiting times nationwide.

Part the funding boost is a £50 million package for the 111 service to "increase capacity".

It is thought the cash will allow the charities, social enterprises, companies and NHS trusts which handle calls to better assist with urgent care, prescriptions and GP bookings where lengthy waiting lists exist.

Ms Caulfield said: "The challenges in the East of England are also being felt in other regions throughout the country.

"We have got extreme pressures at the moment which we would not normally see in summer.

"One of the key reasons is that we are living with Covid-19 now.

"We've got high Covid-19 patient numbers in hospital, usually with Covid not with another illness linked with Covid, but it still means we have the same control measures which will often reduce the number of beds available.

"This affects accident and emergencies, when they can't get their patients on the wards, which has a knock-on impact for the paramedics and ambulances waiting outside.

"This is the sort of pressure we would see at winter intervals.

"We are doing some big pieces of work with hospitals to get some of their delayed discharges back out into the community or at home to free up ward beds."

Ms Caulfield added that the number of patients visiting A&E is currently around four per cent higher than last year.

She said ambulance services are receiving £150 million in funding to boost capacity in 2022, in addition to the £50 million injection for NHS 111.

Her visit to the Hertfordshire call centre follows a period of disruption for hospitals throughout the East of England.

At Lister Hospital in Stevenage, staff declared a critical incident for one day in early June due to extreme accident and emergency pressures and a leaking roof.

Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex found viral fame on Twitter when a nurse announced to A&E patients that the waiting time to see a doctor stood at seven and a half hours on June 7.

Throughout the NHS, a record-breaking 6.6 million patients were waiting to be seen for consultant-led secondary care in May 2022.

Of these patients, 782,365 were in the East of England.

In February 2020, before the Covid-19 lockdown, the national figure stood at 4.43 million.

The Royal College of General Practitioners believes NHS delays are having a knock-on impact for GPs throughout the country.

When asked about the solution to lengthy waiting times at GP surgeries both before and during Covid-19, Ms Caulfield said work began to resolve the recent backlog "last winter".

She said: "We did do a big piece of work with GPs last winter to increase capacity.

"The main problem is patients trying to get through. When they've seen a clinician or GP at the surgery, they're usually pretty happy with the outcome.

"It is about the volume of calls, and what we've heard talking to 111 call handlers in Welwyn Garden City, they can now do many of the things a GP receptionist used to do.

"For example, if there's a problem with the prescription, they've got pharmacists here who can issue prescriptions.

"They can book appointments to urgent care centres.

"We're trying to increase capacity across the board, not just having one point of contact with the GP receptionist."

The minister added that there is "wide ranging" support for GP surgeries, including new cloud-based telephony systems which can divert calls at busy times.

Her visit came in the same month that East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust decided a plan for it to purchase a private hospital in Hatfield would be "extremely problematic".

When asked about when Hertfordshire residents are likely to see new public NHS infrastructure, the minister insisted that the Conservatives are sticking to their 2019 manifesto commitment to roll out "20 hospital upgrades and 40 new hospitals".

She said: "We have started with the new hospitals programme, with one completed already and the next tranche of construction started.

"For this area, I know that Watford and St Albans are one of 48 up for consideration in the next tranche and we're going through the plans at the moment.

"It's between now and 2030 and we've got some time to get construction underway."