Massive Delay in Ambulance Response Times

Jennie Howitt

When Linda (89) had a fall in her garden, her husband immediately called an ambulance. It took 4 hours to arrive – twice as long as the national ambulance response time target. During this time, she was left in the dark and cold, unable to go to the toilet or even move in case she had suffered a spinal injury.

Unfortunately, Linda’s story is common, with the decline of rapid ambulance response time for emergencies in recent years. In fact, 3,000 more heart attack victims could be saved each year if 90 percent of 999 calls were answered in the target time.

This incident took place a day before the East Midland Ambulance Service Report was released. This report suggests an unimaginably widespread delay in ambulance response times, with them missing every target across the board.

East Midland Ambulance Service report

Ambulances are failing to meet targets in every category, from non-urgent injuries or illnesses to life-threatening ones.

The recent East Midland Ambulance Service’s 2021/22 annual report shows that they were missing every target. The target for patients suffering from Category 2 emergencies – which include heart attacks, strokes and sepsis – was around an 18-minute wait, and yet the report revealed that these patients faced an average wait of 49 minutes and 50 seconds for an ambulance. The target wait time for Category 3 and 4 patients (urgent and non-urgent), is respectively 2 and 5 hours. Yet 90% of patients were forced to wait more than 6 hours.

Another shocking finding, according to the report, was that during 2021/2022, East Midland Ambulance Service ‘lost 125,500 hours to pre-hospital handover delays (compared to 59,759 hours lost during 2020/2021), equating to 10,458 12-hour vehicle shifts – an average of 29 shifts a day’.

Neil Scott, head of operations for Lincolnshire at East Midlands Ambulance Service, said: ‘We are currently experiencing immense, sustained pressure on our service and our staff are continuing to work hard to prioritise the sickest and most severely injured patients.’

This report also comes only months after a 70-year-old man from London died of a heart attack after an ambulance took 70 minutes to arrive after a call from 999. Clearly, this ambulance response delay is a national crisis.

These figures are ‘off the scale‘, according to Royal College of Emergency Medicine Vice President Adrian Boyle. ‘It is not because more ambulances are being called, it’s because the amount of time they’re spending outside a hospital has increased,’ he said. In some cases, these waits are substantial; a Plymouth man recently spent 13 hours in an ambulance outside Derriford Hospital.

Dr Boyle noted that when ambulances are stuck queuing outside hospitals their crews are subsequently not available to respond to other emergencies.

Pressure from the pandemic

This report reflects a more systemic issue for the NHS, which has significantly deteriorated since the start of the pandemic. BBC research showed there were 551 serious safety reports filed by ambulance staff in England between March 2021 and February 2022, up from 312 in the same period before the pandemic. This included 201 unintended or unexpected deaths, up from 78 in 2019/2020.

Other research has found that there’s been a 77% rise in the most serious safety incidents logged by paramedics in England over the past year.

Ambulance crews themselves have faced long delays when they pick up patients and then try to deliver them to hospital staff in a busy emergency department. The rise of COVID-19 has put extreme pressure on hospitals and longer ambulance response times could be a consequence of this.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson in England said, ‘We recognise the unprecedented pressure NHS staff are under from the pandemic – especially frontline ambulance workers.’

Clearly, there is a lack of resources given to the ambulance services. Hopefully, this report will trigger some drastic changes.

About the author: Jennie Howitt is a contributing features writer with a degree in English Literature, a series of published poetry, and an interest in arts, culture, feminism, and healthcare.