Record numbers of patients suffered severe harm last month because they spent so long in the back of ambulances waiting to get into A&E, new NHS figures reveal.
An estimated 57,000 people in England “experienced potential harm”, of whom 6,000 were exposed to “severe harm”, in December – both the largest numbers on record – because they had to wait at least an hour to be handed over to hospital staff, according to NHS ambulance service bosses.
The health union Unison, which represents many ambulance staff, said the data showed that the ambulance service “is barely coping” with the huge number of calls it is receiving.
A senior ambulance service official said the high volume of patients being put at risk because they had to wait outside A&E so long before receiving medical attention, and paramedics being prevented from answering other 999 calls, was “horrific” and “astronomical”.
He added: “These figures also show that whatever NHS England say they are doing to try to resolve this huge problem, it clearly isn’t working.”
The figures, published on Wednesday by the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives (AACE), also show that in December ambulance crews were tied up at hospitals for so long that on 181,000 occasions they could not respond to a 999 plea for help.
That figure represented almost one in three (31%) of all the 999 calls received last month – again the highest proportion since records began. The equivalent figure was just 8% at the start of 2020.
AACE’s monthly report on handover delays also disclosed that:
Crews “lost” a total of 227,000 hours through being stuck outside A&E units, double the number of hours recorded just a year earlier.
Martin Flaherty, AACE’s managing director, said: “Our December 2022 data for handover delays at hospital emergency departments shows some of the worst figures we have recorded to date and clearly underlines that not enough is being done to reduce and eradicate these dangerous, unsafe and harmful occurrences.”
Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, said: “Ministers are guilty of neglecting the NHS on an industrial scale. Ambulance handover delays scream malfunction of the entire system.
“On the government’s watch, the ambulance service has gone from being under pressure during the winter to barely coping all year round. No wonder people are leaving faster than new recruits can be appointed.”
In the latest evidence of how ambulance delays are costing lives, a coroner has opened inquests into how two women in Devon died earlier this month after the ambulance service took nine hours and seven hours respectively to reach them.
Sharon Ford, 54, of Brixham and 72-year-old Iris Collings of Paignton both died after suffering strokes. The delay in the ambulance reaching them meant they could no longer receive thrombolysis treatment to maximize their chances of surviving.
A full inquest will be held later.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Last month the NHS responded to over 100,000 of the most serious emergency ambulance callouts as well as answering over 1 million 999 calls – both the highest totals on record for December, as the ‘twindemic’ of flu and Covid- 19 resulted in increased demand.
“NHS staff are working hard to reach patients as quickly as possible. It is vital the public continue to call 999 in a life-threatening emergency, as well as using NHS 111 online for other health needs, where they will receive clinical advice on the best next steps to take.”