NHS 111 services suffered an outage blamed on a cyber attack last week, it has emerged.
The firm providing digital services, Advanced, said the incident happened at 7am last Thursday.
According to one report, the attack targeted the system used to refer patients for care, including ambulances being sent to jobs, out-of-hours appointment bookings and emergency prescriptions.
The NHS stressed the disruption to service users was kept to a minimum.
The National Crime Agency is working with Advanced and confirmed the incident had taken place. #
Advanced spokesman Simon Short said: “A security issue was identified yesterday, which resulted in loss of service.
“We can confirm that the incident is related to a cyber-attack and as a precaution, we immediately isolated all our health and care environments.”
Short said the problem has been contained to a “small number of servers” but may take several days to resolve fully.
Medical magazine Pulse reported family doctors in London were warned by NHS England they could see an increased number of patients sent to them by NHS 111 due a “significant technical issue” which affected the referral process.
Cybersecurity experts pointed to ransomware as a possible reason for the attack.
The BBC reported that Robert Pritchard said ransomware gangs, who encrypt vital data and demand a ransom in order to get the information decrypted, have been routinely targeting schools and hospitals.
The Welsh Ambulance Service said: “There is a major outage of a computer system that is used to refer patients from NHS 111 Wales to out-of-hours GP providers. The ongoing outage is significant and has been far-reaching, impacting each of the four nations in the UK.”
An NHS England spokesman said: “NHS 111 services are still available for patients who are unwell, but as ever if it is an emergency please call 999.”
A Scottish Government confirmed it was aware of the situation and was “working with all health boards collaboratively with the National Cyber Security Centre and the supplier to fully understand potential impact”.
A spokesman said that contigency plans were in place
Northern Ireland’s Department of Health reported: ” As a precaution, to avoid risk to other critical systems and services, access to the company’s services from the HSC (Health and Social Care system) has been disabled, while the incident is contained.”
One of the hacked systems,Carenotes, is one of the most commonly used systems by NHS mental health trusts.
Mental health trust leaders have now warned that their patients face a “desperate” situation as the cyber-criminals risk holding them up from receiving effective treatment.
Hospital staff have been urged to ready themselves for major disruption which could last for around three weeks or possibly longer.
In an email to NHS staff, Nick Broughton, the chief executive of the Oxford Health NHS foundation trust, wrote: “The cyberattack targeted systems used to refer patients for care, including ambulances being dispatched, out-of-hours appointment bookings, triage, out-of-hours care, emergency prescriptions and safety alerts.
“It also targeted the finance system used by the trust.
“We have now been advised that we should prepare for a system outage that could continue for two weeks for Adastra and possibly longer than three weeks for Carenotes.”
The email also warned that a “huge amount of work” will need to be done to resolve the issue.
It continued: “Recovery from this cyberattack will take a huge amount of work and effort and plans are being drawn up to manage this.”
While some pointed the finger at Russia for the attack, which is known to have committed attacks of this nature before, experts have said it was more likely to have been a criminal gang.
But the public has been urged to carry on using the NHS as normal, ringing 999 in emergencies.