The public will be told to call NHS 111 to book “urgent” slots in Accident and Emergency departments rather than just turning up in a bid to reduce overcrowding this winter.
Next week, the NHS will run a TV campaign and billboard adverts urging people to use the phoneline to secure an appointment at their local casualty unit.
Health officials said the reforms will mean those with an “urgent but not life-threatening” medical need can get seen in A&E more quickly.
They said the changes would result in shorter waiting times and less crowding because the service will also be able to book other types of medical assistance, such as a GP appointment, reducing the numbers that end up in A&E and cutting the risk of Covid spread.
Pilot schemes have been running in 27 areas since the summer and the scheme is being launched across the whole country next week.
A&E doctors said that while changes were needed they were fearful the rollout had been rushed. Adrian Boyle, the vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said he would want to see a proper evaluation of the pilot schemes before he could fully support the reforms.
Earlier this year, Dr Chris Moulton, a former vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said he feared the changes could make it far harder for some patients to access urgent care.
“The last thing when you are in an emergency is to make a phone call – if you’ve chopped your finger off, you dont want to phone before you go,” said Dr Moulton, an A&E consultant at Bolton NHS Foundation Trust.
Professor Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director, said: “Giving patients who are not emergency cases the option of booking a prompt appointment, as well as the option of turning up, can help give the public the confidence to come forward for care.”
He said the scheme would “help combat the spread of Covid-19 by reducing the numbers and making it easier to socially distance in A&E waiting rooms”.