Pressure on ambulance services means that people with life-threatening conditions are waiting three times as long as they should be, the College of Paramedics have said.
Targets to get to people suffering from stroke or heart attacks are being missed, with one paramedic saying they are concerned about the risk to patients every shift.
Delays in 999 response times have been linked to a number of deaths, including the death of a person following a cardiac arrest after a five-hour wait in an ambulance outside Worcestershire Royal Hospital.
Another investigation is underway after a patient died after waiting an hour for paramedics, despite the call being classed as immediately life-threatening.
The current situation has been described as “unacceptable” by the College of Paramedics, with reports of ambulances queuing for hours outside hospitals.
One 82-year-old woman, Margaret Root, had a six-hour wait for an ambulance after suffering a stroke, then a three-hour wait outside the hospital. It meant that by the time she was admitted, it was too late for her to receive drugs that could reverse the effects of the stroke.
Her granddaughter Christina White-Smith said: “I don’t think people are aware of the severity of the situation,” adding that Margaret had been “hugely let down”.
Paramedic Richard Webber, a spokesman for the College of Paramedics, said: “We have members who have been working for 20, 30 years, and they have never before experienced anything like this at this time of the year.
“Every day services are holding hundreds of 999 calls with no-one to send. The ambulance service is simply not providing the levels of service they should – patients are waiting too long and that is putting them at risk.”
Mr Webber said that delays in handing patients over to hospital staff, often stretching to three or four hours, meant that over a 12-hour period, a team of paramedics can only attend two or three call-outs, where before they would have gone out to six to eight.
Latest data for England shows that:
- Category one life-threatening cases, including cardiac arrests, took on average more than nine minutes to get to. The target is seven minutes – every one-minute delay reduces survival chances by 10 per cent for cardiac arrests.
- Category two cases, which cover heart attacks, strokes and burns, should be attended to within 18 minutes, but took nearly 54 minutes on average.
There appears to be a number of reasons as to why ambulance services are so stretched, including the impact of the pandemic on healthcare, which has led to the decline in the health of vulnerable and frail people.
In addition, shortages in social care has caused delays in discharging people who are well enough to leave hospital.
Paramedics in Scotland have also spoken about the “unprecedented” pressures they are experiencing, and a similar picture has been reported in Wales.
Chris Hopson, from NHS Providers, which represents ambulance and hospital leaders in England, said: “What is worrying now is that they are all operating right at their limits and we are not yet into winter, when there’s every chance these pressures could step up still further.”
The NHS medical director for England, Professor Stephen Powis, said that the ambulance service had experienced its highest-ever number of 999 calls in a single month at the same time as major A&E departments reported their busiest month.
He said: “There is no doubt pressure on the health service remains incredibly high.”