News Five hours on hold: Australia’s coronavirus hotline rejects callers as it buckles under pressure
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Five hours on hold: Australia’s coronavirus hotline rejects callers as it buckles under pressure

Kylie Robertson with her son Wally in 2018.
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Australia’s coronavirus hotline is buckling under demand, with one caller saying she was put on hold for more than five hours.

Kylie Robertson called the hotline after her 13-year-old boy, Wally Brown presented flu-like symptoms.

“I first called my local GP. They went ‘if it is as expected coronavirus, we don’t want you in the building. Call the hotline’,” she told The New Daily.

Wally had been in contact with people from overseas, had aches and was feverish – it had come on suddenly.

All the symptoms of a bad cold and COVID-19. 

“When you first get on the line, they ask you questions like, ‘Are you suffering from these symptoms?’ I answered yes to all of them.

“I was put on hold for five-and-a-half hours.”

Eventually, she hung up out of frustration.

Wally is on the mend, but Ms Robertson is worried he could still be contagious.

The mixed messages over public protocol haven’t helped, she said.

“If he was really, really sick we would have gone to the hospital, but they don’t want you there,” Ms Robertson said. 

“My reality is now because it is getting worse, and the phones are more in demand, do I even bother trying to ring back?

“They’re labelling it a state of emergency, so there should be clear information saying, ‘This is what you have to do, these are the steps you have to take’.”

The New Daily tried six times over the course of Tuesday to call the hotline and was told on five of them the line was too busy to take the call.

The COVID-19 hotline is under strain. Photo: CDC

“The telecommunications network you are calling is temporarily congested,” the voice machine said. 

“We apologise for any inconvenience. Please try again later.”

In the afternoon, it finally picked up.

The service is struggling to meet demands, with calls in the past week surging up to 9000 per day.

A spokesperson for Health Direct, the publicly funded company providing the Telehealth services to Australia, said the average wait times were sitting around one hour.

“We have just added a COVID-19 clinical assessment tool to the service, which is experiencing average wait times of around an hour,” she said.

“During peak times we have additional nurses answering calls and we are ramping up capacity over the coming week to meet demand.

“These are the same nurses that work on the front line, delivering care to patients in the health system, so we are conscious about managing their capacity and welfare.

“We understand this is a time of high anxiety for many and apologise for any inconvenience. We are working to improve the wait time across the service.”

The Australian Health Department said concerned Australians could also get information from health.gov.au and the World Health Organisation website.

“These calls are being answered promptly and shouldn’t result in a significant wait time,” a spokesperson said.

“There is also a wealth of information on the health.gov.au website, the health direct website, the World Health Organisation website and the state and territory health department websites to guide people.”

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