Patients are being urged to call 111 before attending accident and emergency departments to help regulate the number of people in hospital waiting areas.
Under the new scheme, those in need of care for a serious but non-life threatening condition will be able to book an appointment at their nearest A&E to avoid a long wait at hospital.
The 111 First programme is intended to schedule slots at A&E to help maintain social distancing in hospitals, or direct patients to other services such as a GP or pharmacist.
Contact NHS 111 when you have an urgent healthcare need. It directs you to the right local service, first time.
It's available 24/7 making it easier for you to access urgent healthcare services when you need medical help fast. pic.twitter.com/QFfvZNu0Vc
— RCHT (@RCHTWeCare) September 2, 2020
Currently being piloted in Portsmouth and Cornwall, it is due to be extended to other parts of the country in the coming months.
A spokesman for NHS England emphasised that those who did not book an appointment would not be turned away if they presented at A&E.
“It reduces the crowding in A&E but still allows you to get the help you need,” he said.
The spokesman said: “(NHS 111) staff 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.”
He added that those in need of urgent care would be given a slot within a matter of hours, while in serious cases 111 operators would send an ambulance to take a patient in immediately.
The service is due to launch a major public information campaign in the coming months informing the public where and how to access the care they need.
A pilot for a similar “phone-first” triage system was launched at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board last month.
Walk-in patients and emergency admissions to hospitals in England fell dramatically in the first few months of lockdown.
Data published by NHS England shows 0.9 million A&E attendances were recorded in April 2020, down 57% from 2.1 million in April 2019.
Emergency admissions to A&E departments at hospitals in England also showed a sharp fall – down 39% from 535,226 in April 2019 to 326,581 in April 2020.
It was the lowest for any calendar month since current records began in August 2010.
Health officials became so concerned about the drop that many NHS foundation trusts urged people to attend if they needed urgent, non-Covid related care.