A red emergency light
  • The telephone number 111 has been designated for the use of South Africa's "Covid-19 national emergency services".
  • Calls and SMSes to it are supposed to be free, under regulations published on Wednesday, at least as long as SA's state of disaster lasts.
  • In some other countries that number is used for non-urgent medical use, to keep the load off call centres on the 112 emergency number.
  • Neither telephone companies nor SA's telecommunications regulator could immediately say just where calls to the number will go, or when the plan will be implemented.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

The phone number 111 has been designated for use by South Africa's "Covid-19 national emergency services".

In regulations published on Wednesday, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) "harmonised and mandated" that number for use during the coronavirus crisis, using its power to designate special phone numbers such as 112 for emergencies.

Calls and SMSes to that number will be free, Icasa decreed.

In terms of the regulations, the shortcode number will be put to use for three months after the end of South Africa's national state of disaster.

South Africa has no formal Covid-19 emergency service, but the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) operates a special toll-free number to deal with questions, especially from those who believe they may have Covid-19, on 0800 029 999.

South Africa also has a WhatsApp platform for Covid-19 information and advice, which is accessed by sending "hi" to 060 012 3456. 

Telephone companies and Icasa itself were not immediately available to speak to when the 111 number would be active as a Covid-19 hotline, or exactly where calls and SMSes would be routed.

Some countries use the 111 number for medical advice that is not life-threateningly urgent, in order to take some load off emergency call centres such as South Africa's 112.

In the United Kingdom the National Health Service markets 111 as being for "less urgent" calls, to be used when in need of medical help or advice, such as a referral to an emergency hospital unit. When first introduced, in 2013, it was criticised for occasional long wait times.

In New Zealand, by contrast, 111 is the long-used life-threatening-emergency number, with the number 105 later introduced to reach the police for non-emergency issues, in order to take load off the 111 call centre.

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