A London barista died of malaria after failing to get through to 111 six times over two days due to the volume of coronavirus-related calls before waiting nearly an hour and a half for an ambulance as his sister begged the 999 operator for help.
Davide Saporito, 28, who had returned from a holiday in Zanzibar, was on hold for up to one hour and 48 minutes but could not get through as the service battled with a flood of other callers checking their symptoms amid the outbreak.
His sister phoned to check up on him and heard he was mumbling incoherently so called an ambulance, ran to his flat and tried to knock down the door. She called 999 another two times as her brother was fell unconscious. He later died in hospital.
Natalina Saporito, 38, told MailOnline: ‘He probably would have suffered brain damage, maybe affecting his sight, maybe his legs or God knows what. But what took his life was all the time wasted.’
Mr Saporito first began feeling ill while working at Dropshot cafe in Southfields, south-west London, on Monday March 9, so went home early. A day later he developed a temperature and phoned 111 at 12.46pm but the call cut out.
He tried a second time at 12.51pm but the line cut off with no answer, before trying a third time and waiting for 48 minutes before the same thing happened.
At the time the non-emergency number was facing huge demand, with 373 people having tested for coronavirus and people urged to phone the line if they displayed symptoms. The advice has now changed, with people with suspected coronavirus told to only phone 111 if they are seriously ill.
On Wednesday Mr Saporito felt better but unsuccessfully called 111 at 8.59am and 9.12am to ensure he had not contracted coronavirus and was clear to return to work.
At 9.30am he eventually got through but a health adviser said he did not have Covid-19 symptoms so needed to phone again but the option for general calls.
He tried to do so at 11.15am but spent one hour and 47 minutes on the line before hanging up in a state of exhaustion. At 2pm, contacted his GP but was told to ring 111 again.
His sister, Natalina, who had been regularly checking up on her brother to see if he was getting medical help, sent a text at 4.10pm but received no reply, before following up with a call at 4.25pm to find him mumbling and incoherent.
She immediately phoned Mr Saporito’s flatmate, Danila, who was not in the flat but phoned an ambulance at 4.40pm.
‘The ambulance wanted to know if he was breathing, but she explained that no one was at home and she did not know,’ Natalina said. ‘So they replied: ‘If I don’t know what his state is, the ambulance can take three and a half hours to get there.
‘I took a taxi and managed to get there to his flat at 5.30pm. I knocked, punched, and kicked his front door but it did not open.
‘I called the ambulance again and explained Danila had already called, but they went again to ask me home address, name and location where he had travelled to.
‘Danila arrived at about 5.40pm with the keys. Davide was on the sofa with his eyes open looking nowhere, unconscious and unable to speak. I called the ambulance again and a man answered asking me again the same damn questions.’
Natalina said at this point she got angry at the operator, who then shouted back at him.
‘My brother was dying and I just wanted an ambulance,’ Natalina said. ‘He shouted back at me and I clearly remember his words: ‘Are you being rude to me? Are you swearing at me? We have been busy all day’.’
At 6.10pm the ambulance eventually arrived and took Mr Saporito to St George’s Hospital in Tooting, where he died from cerebral malaria two days later.
Natalina said: ‘If only just someone could tell me he saw me, if he knew I was there next to him and I did not leave him by himself.’
Dropshot manager Ed Savitt has started a crowdfunding campaign to pay for Mr Saporito’s body to be repatriated to Sicily, where his family are in coronavirus quarantine. The money will also be used to help cover the costs of his funeral.
In a moving tribute, Mr Savitt remembered his ‘infectious smile and constant positivity’.
‘It was just on Monday that you were working and none of this seems real,’ he wrote. ‘You lived life to the full, always laughing, joking, partying, travelling.
‘You loved your family and friends so much. And your talent making coffee and DJ’ing were undeniable. It’s so hard to imagine that you’ll never walk through the front door again. We all miss you so much brother.’
Natalina’s husband, Salvatore Cannuni, 39, said: ‘We have been amazed by the amount of love we have received from his colleagues at Dropshot as well as the customers. We want to thank everyone.’
Health officials have long expressed concerns about the ability of the NHS to cope with a pandemic, with already-stretched ambulance services and hospitals hit with a dramatic surge in patients.
Today, an anonymous NHS nurse described working in a ‘chaotic’ 111 call centre and warned: ‘With so few clinicians, so few ambulances, and a huge rise in callers, this nightmare’s only going to get worse.’
It comes as the number of UK deaths rose by 40 to 177 in the largest daily rise so far, and the number of people testing positive for the disease increased to almost 4,000.
An NHS London spokesperson said: ‘Our sympathy is with Davide’s family at this distressing time.
‘NHS staff are currently working round the clock to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic, whilst still ensuring that every patient who needs urgent care is seen as soon as possible, but as the chief medical officer has said, there is no doubt that NHS services are going to continue to come under pressure, which is why we need the public to help us to help everybody by going online to NHS.uk/coronavirus for help with minor symptoms of the virus, keeping our phone services available for people in serious ill health.’