Non copyright photo of Covid-19 mask

The unseen NHS front line battling COVID-19

When you think of the front line in the fight against COVID-19 you will naturally picture doctors, nurses, care workers and ambulance staff. But there’s an unseen front line who back them up with everything from NHS 111 calls about COVID-19, to help with PPE and equipment.

At the start of the pandemic NHS Business Services Authority’s (NHSBSA) national contact centre in Newcastle was taking about 9,000 queries a day, mainly through its NHS 111 COVID phone line. Some difficult calls came from people worried about symptoms and about vulnerable loved ones getting ill or dying.

However before the pandemic struck, staff did a very different job. They handled free prescriptions like maternity certificates, free eye tests, EHIC for European travel, and pensions queries etc. Busy call handlers dealt with 5.2 million calls, emails and social posts a year, covering 23 services. The opening hours were largely 9-5, including some hours on Saturdays.

When COVID-19 hit, and things changed almost overnight, they were quick to volunteer to step up and provide 24/7 services.

As well as operating a PPE helpline and a COVID-19 111 service, NHSBSA’s contact centre also helped with setting up Covid-19 testing. UK companies have been asked to build a diagnostics industry by the government. Within just 24 hours NHSBSA set up a triage for diagnostics, to triage and escalate offers received by companies. Scripts were drafted and 50 call handlers were trained in this short time. All offers and contact from companies were recorded in one system, meaning it could easily be tracked and managed.

Dan Britton, who heads up the contact centre at NHSBSA said: “I was responsible for 850 staff before the pandemic, and 40 of my contact centre staff were working from home at that time. Now it's over 400 and that number is increasing steadily. So big changes have taken place and we’ve had to adapt fast.”

“It quickly became clear that the service would need to operate 24/7 and we had no shortage of volunteers who wanted to help. We were able to pop up a service within just three hours of being asked to do it, because of them. People were willing to stay behind and work, work Saturdays, Sundays and overnight. Despite their own personal challenges, we’ve had no shortage of people willing to do the hours over the last few months which has been amazing.”

As well as supporting COVID-19 through its contact centre, NHSBSA is also responsible for other vital COVID-19 work. Its digital team helped create a new app to communicate with the social care workforce and provided technical expertise to connect the NHS Nightingale Hospital in London with the NHS data network. It made £300 million of funding available to community pharmacies struggling during lockdown. NHSBSA also linked up its NHS Jobs service with Linked In and Adzuna to prioritise COVID-19 job roles. For more details go to:

Contact Information

Sahdia Hassen


Notes to editors


  • Image: Covid-19 mask