Much confusion surrounds the issue of who a person should call if they feel ill but their GP surgery is closed, it has been revealed.
According to a Which? survey, more than half (52%) of people are unaware they could phone an out-of-hours GP service.
This Christmas, GP surgeries will be closed four days in a row due to 25 and 26 December – traditionally days when practices are shut – coming before a weekend.
Nikki Ratcliff, head of services research at Which?, said: "The emergency services are facing their busiest time of year and receiving an unprecedented number of calls, so avoid calling 999 or visiting A&E unless it's a genuine emergency, and instead consider the other health services that are available."
Which? suggested people contact NHS Direct in England and Wales or NHS 24 Scotland for help and information.
A Department of Health spokesperson added: "In almost every part of the country, more than half of GPs (65%) are now providing early morning or evening opening, giving better access to patients. In addition, there are around 100 walk-in centres across the country seeing over two million people annually."
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"In an attempt to make the situation simpler there are currently proposals being considered that could actually defeat their own objective by making the situation more complicated. The GP out-of-hours services should work alongside GP practices, providing a similar level of contact for urgent, but non-emergency, cover. It is proposed that there be a national service operating 24/7 to deal with this category of case. This is in addition to the basic nonurgent health advice and information service, which is all that NHS Direct is intended to provide through its main contact number. The 999 emergency service is not directly affected by any proposals, however one objective is to relieve it of unnecessary calls – ie, every case where the caller is not totally convinced that they are competent to determine that the situation warrants an emergency response. As GP services would continue to operate, adding the new national number would offer a choice of four options, unless suggestions that the NHS Direct information and advice service be abandoned, due to its excessive cost, were taken forward. The Department of Health is currently consulting on a ban on the use of revenue-sharing 084 numbers that are a means of obtaining subsidy from patients, who pay a premium to call them. If this ban is introduced then NHS Direct would have to change its 0845 4647 number (a task that could have been undertaken some time ago as all the necessary arrangements had been made). This wholly necessary number change will just add to the confusion. Devolved management in the NHS means that many different models are used in different parts of the country and local autonomy is seen as a positive way of ensuring the best service. An apparently simple single national system would probably offer the greatest clarity, however a complex network of links with local providers would undoubtedly undermine its effectiveness and it would deny the benefit of effective local initiatives. The clarity of a single provider of an ineffective service is perhaps not what is required" – David Hickson, London