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News : Covid 19: More Than Half of Early Morning Calls to Healthline are 'Abandoned'


Wellington, Auckland, New Zealand, July 5, 2021 - Healthline, New Zealand’s first call for Covid-19 questions, has confirmed more than half of calls are abandoned at times and those getting through may talk to a former travel agent or hospitality worker.

A photo sent to Stuff last week from inside a Healthline call centre showed that, at the time, there were just five staff rostered on to receive Healthline calls and 52 per cent of all calls were being abandoned.

Healthline – contracted by the Ministry of Health but run by the privately-owned Whakarongorau Aotearoa?? via the National Telehealth Service (NTS) – has become the place to call if people think they have come into contact with the virus or need advice. But, during times of community outbreak, wait times in the past have been nearly eight hours for some.

Whakarongorau Aotearoa chief executive Andrew Slater? on Sunday confirmed at quiet times – such as 2am to 5am – it could have just five staff on. Up to 35 staff were rostered at peak times.

Healthline, which eight staff members had left since January, had an offshoot Covid hotline which was contacted through the same phone number.

Slater was not able to supply figures for staffing or resignation numbers for the hotline but confirmed they were "largely made up of non-clinical" workers. It was not clear if the leaked photo was inside the general Healthline centre or the Covid hotline.

Covid hotline workers included a former travel agent, as well as stay-at-home parents, and people who previously worked in tourism, the airline industry, and hospitality. All were trained and able to transfer calls to clinical staff or ask for advice if necessary, Slater said.

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He could not supply figures for how many calls to the Covid hotline were abandoned. Healthline abandoned calls could go as high as 52 per cent, but the past 12 months had seen 97 per cent of calls answered within 10 minutes, he said.

Some abandoned calls would be people who found the information they were after on the automated phone service. He did not have figures for this.

Both Healthline and its Covid-19 hotline were staffed to the required levels or beyond, he said.

Workforce pressures at NTS were signalled long before the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Internally, staff shortages on top of increasing service demand has put additional pressure on our existing and stretched workforce, putting staff turnover, wellbeing and morale at risk," its 2019 to 2020 annual plan said.

Slater on Sunday said those problems had been alleviated.

Ministry of Health spokeswoman Clare Perry? said it regularly evaluated how Healthline was doing, most recently last March. At that time it was meeting all specifications "provided securely through stable technology and with qualified staff".

"Healthline are an important part of the provision of health advice to the public in response to medical events as well as being a key part of the Covid response," Perry said.

From June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2021, nearly 920,000 calls were answered in the combined Healthline and Covid hotlines.


Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent

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Published: Tuesday, July 6, 2021

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