Ambulance response times in England have reached record poor levels, with ambulances arriving late to more than 2,600 life-threatening emergencies every day, figures have revealed.
In the last year alone, ambulances failed to meet the eight minute target response time for more than 1m life-threatening calls – the worst performance since records began in 2010.
Ten out of 12 ambulance trusts failed to meet the 75 per cent target of arriving within 8 minutes for the most serious Red 1 calls – which include cardiac arrests – and Red 2 calls, which include strokes.
August figures show that across ambulance trusts, only 73.6 per cent of Red 1 calls were attended to within 8 minutes – the worst performance in 5 months, while only 69.7 per cent of Red 2 calls had ambulances arrive within the target time – a drop from 70.6 per cent in July.
The worsening figures reflect a health service that’s at breaking point, with a growing ageing population adding to the pressure, as well as patients calling 999 when they are not able to see a GP.
Paramedics have also said that the controversial 111 emergency number, set up to replace NHS Direct, has also exacerbated the situation.
Earlier this year, a 111 call handler reported a severe shortage of medically trained staff to support call handlers who have little medical training – a situation that’s lead to ambulances being called out unnecessarily, further adding to the strain on ambulance services.
Unite head of health Barrie Brown pointed to the large increase in demand in the last year as a main driver of worsening wait times.
“There has been a massive increase in activity over the last 12 months, particularly over the summer,” he noted.“This has led to a massive exodus of qualified staff who have finally called ‘time’ on high levels of stress, unsympathetic managements and eroding incomes in real terms.
“The usual culprits are bed blocking at hospitals and the fact that our members do what they are asked to do and keep people out of hospital which actually takes much longer to achieve – so there are fewer people available to answer the constant stream of increased calls,” he added.
Brown also blamed health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s lack of leadership and failure to understand the seriousness of the pressure on NHS finances.
“The crisis in the ambulance service is yet another example of health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s ostrich-like behaviour whenever another melt-down occurs in the NHS – he needs to get a grip what’s happening across England,” Brown said.
“Hunt is in denial about the financial seriousness of the situation,” he added. “I know that he thinks we should all work as hard as the Chinese, but our members are already working flat-out and chalking up loads of overtime.”
Brown noted that the situation in London has become so bad that the ambulance service is “poaching paramedics from Australia and New Zealand” in order to “maintain creaking staffing levels of service.”
All-time low morale
NHS paramedic and Unite member Debbie Wilkinson, who is also chair of the National Ambulance Committee told UNITElive this summer the incredible strain paramedics are under, including constant overtime shifts, and a doubling of workloads over the past year with no extra help.
Coupled with pay restraint, reduced pension entitlements, and a stressful workplace in which bullying is commonplace – all while facing skyrocketing living costs –is it any wonder that paramedics and other health professionals are leaving in droves?
“Staff morale is at an all-time low,” Wilkinson said. “I don’t think people realise how hard people work in the NHS and how poorly paid they actually are.
“Frontline services are already being severely affected; patients are waiting longer to be seen. Piling more pressure on NHS staff will only make the situation worse.”
Labour health spokesperson Heidi Alexander emphasised the absolute necessity of meeting wait time targets.
“For people who have suffered cardiac arrest or a stroke, every second counts,” she said.
“The quicker a patient receives treatment the more likely they are to survive. These figures raise real concerns that lives are being put at risk.”
Alexander added that government cuts were to blame for the deteriorating performance.
“The ambulance service is under pressure as a direct result of decisions the government has made,” she said.
“It is yet further evidence that Tory health policies are failing patients. With winter approaching, and ministers still planning to make £22bn worth of efficiency savings, the NHS is on the brink of a deeply worrying crisis.”
The Department of Health has estimated that 3,000 lives a year could be saved if all ambulances arrived within eight minutes.