COVID-19: Public inquiry should examine 'mishandling' by NHS 111 service during first wave of pandemic

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The government has said the probe will start in spring 2022 and bereaved family groups will be consulted. But some families believe the prime minister is "ghosting" them.

COVID-19: Public inquiry should examine 'mishandling' by NHS 111 service during first wave of pandemic

Image: Bereaved people are calling for the independent inquiry to look at the NHS 11 service

Families who have lost loved ones to coronavirus believed the public inquiry into pandemic should examine the alleged “mishandling” of the crisis by the NHS 111 service.

The COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group said the role of the telephone advice service in the early days of the crisis was to “alleviate the burden on the NHS”, with “horrific consequences”.

Despite an extra 700 call handlers being added, the service was “swamped” as the first wave hit and operators were making life and death decisions with just 10 weeks of training, it argued.

COVID-19: Public inquiry should examine 'mishandling' by NHS 111 service during first wave of pandemic

Image: Groups supporting bereaved families believe the NHS service mishandled calls during the first wave

Around a fifth of the group’s then 1,800 members at the end of the first wave believed the 111 service had “failed to recognise how seriously ill their relatives were and direct them to appropriate care”.

It is one of several issues families and more than a dozen expert groups believe the inquiry must cover when it starts in 2022.

The groups have published a report – Learn Lessons, Save Lives – saying the government had not consulted them on the scope of the probe.

Other key areas they recommend include:

  • The government’s pandemic preparedness
  • The disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and the role of socioeconomic inequalities and structural racism
  • Shortages of basic PPE for health and care workers and inadequate risk assessments
  • The policy to discharge hospital patients into care homes without prior testing
  • How the crisis affected clinically extremely vulnerable and disabled people
COVID-19: Public inquiry should examine 'mishandling' by NHS 111 service during first wave of pandemic

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Lobby Akinnola, a member of the bereaved families group, said his father, Olufemi Akinnola, called NHS 111 four times over two-and-a-half weeks in April 2020 but was told that he should not go to the hospital.

He believes the assessments were informed by his father saying he did not have blue lips – a symptom of hypoxia that as a black man he did not have.

The 60-year-old was thought to be recovering from coronavirus, but he was experiencing hypoxia (low blood oxygen) that proved to be fatal.

Lobby Akinnola, 30, said: “It’s hard not to believe that if my dad had gone to hospital, he might still be with us today.

“A healthy, active man, I can’t help but wonder if he’d received different advice from 111, could it all have been so different?

COVID-19: Public inquiry should examine 'mishandling' by NHS 111 service during first wave of pandemic

Image: The PM has insisted the government will consult groups on the inquiry

“If he had been white and his lips had turned visibly blue, would he have received the same advice? Would I still have my dad?”

He added that he does not blame operators.

“111 must be a key issue that the inquiry looks at, and the families that lost loved ones as a consequence of the failings resulting from the government’s mishandling of the service must be at the forefront of that.”

A separate inquiry, by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, was launched earlier this year after concerns that the advice given did not fully respond to the severity of reported symptoms and delays in answering or returning calls.

In September, meeting members of the bereaved families group for the first time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said an inquiry chair would be appointed by Christmas and families would consulted on the probe’s terms of reference.

Last week the group complained that Mr Johnson was “ghosting” them and said they want to avoid a situation where they are consulted close to Christmas, which will be distressing for those facing the festivities without loved ones.

Downing Street has said the inquiry is due to start in spring 2022.

The government has been contacted for comment.

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