Dozens of NHS “traffic control centres” are live across England in a move aimed at managing pressure on the service more effectively.
The 42 “winter war rooms” use data such as A&E performance, waiting times, staff levels, ambulance response times and bed occupancy.
That data allows staff to divert ambulances away from full hospitals and towards ones with more space, where patients have a better chance of being seen quickly.
The centres were announced in October as part of a wider plan.
They will run seven days a week – fully staffed during the day, with on-call arrangements at night.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “These locally delivered control centres are just one part of our wide-ranging preparations for winter but will play a vital role in the sharing and use of vital information to drive smarter decision-making by local NHS teams.
“From Maidstone to Lincoln, less than six weeks after we issued our national guidance, we have teams across England working around the clock monitoring and responding to information and insights from frontline services to help spread resources and make the best possible decisions for both staff and patients.
“With recent data hitting home the significant pressure staff are facing – with 10 times the flu cases in hospital than we saw going into winter last year and thousands of beds taken up by patients medically fit for discharge – it has never been more important for the NHS to introduce these important and innovative planning measures ahead of what is likely to be one of our most challenging winters yet.”
The average response time in September for the most urgent incidents (people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries) was nine minutes and 19 seconds, against a seven-minute target.
Ambulances also took an average of 47 minutes and 59 seconds in September to respond to emergency calls such as burns, epilepsy and strokes – well above the target of 18 minutes.
And things do not get easier after the ambulance crew has reached the patient – accident and emergency departments are also under strain, with ambulances often facing lengthy waits to transfer patients into hospital.
NHS England has announced a number of other plans in recent weeks for services aimed at easing the pressure on hospitals.
An expansion of the falls response services will mean more people can be treated in their own homes, a move estimated to free up 55,000 ambulance trips each year.
Local “respiratory infections hubs” will offer patients same-day care for COVID-19, flu, acute bronchitis and pneumonia – again aimed at minimising the number of unnecessary trips to hospital.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said the control centres could help ease pressure on urgent and emergency services, but added: “Urgent action is also still needed to tackle workforce shortages, staff exhaustion and burnout, and the inability to free up capacity by discharging medically fit patients in a safe and timely way.”