Almost half of ambulance crews were delayed by more than half an hour dropping off patients at England’s A&E departments in the week to New Year’s Day, new figures reveal.
Some 44% were delayed by 30 minutes or more – the highest proportion on record.
More than a quarter (26%) were delayed by more than an hour.
The figures lay bare the pressures hospitals have faced in recent weeks, with flu cases rising by 47%.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak acknowledged the “enormous pressure” the NHS is under, and repeated his commitment to tackling waiting lists, which he first outlined during his first major speech of 2023 on Wednesday.
Speaking to broadcasters during a visit to a London school, Mr Sunak said that moving people out of hospitals into social care and communities, in order to free up hospital beds, is “one of the most powerful” ways to cut down ambulance waiting times and ease pressures on A&E departments.
He added that the government is also supporting the NHS “with billions of pounds of extra funding,” blaming the COVID-19 pandemic for current challenges.
Flu cases up almost half in a week
New figures from NHS England showed there were 5,105 patients with flu in general and acute hospital beds, up from 3,479 the previous week.
The number of patients in critical care beds with flu also increased by 26%, up from 267 the previous week, to 336. The NHS 111 service answered the second highest number of calls ever in a week – 410,618.
The importance of ‘flow’ in the context of NHS pressures
Anyone following the media coverage of the NHS winter crisis will have heard health leaders use the word “flow”.
It’s a deceptively simple word and its importance in the context of NHS pressures can’t be understated.
It explains how a functioning health system should work: sick patients arrive, are treated and then discharged. The uninterrupted flow of patients through a hospital.
But too many patients are stuck in hospital when they should be back in the community. That is because there are no social care packages for them in place for a safe discharge.
This week’s NHS winter data shows a slight fall in the number of these patients. That is an encouraging sign.
There are huge efforts underway to manage these patients with initiatives like virtual wards and more rapid community discharge teams. These all help but are not a solution to an underfunded and under resourced social care system.
There is also the caveat that any figures covering Christmas and New Year might not be totally accurate. The next set of figures will show if that trend continues.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said that adding extra call handlers and establishing community services would ensure the NHS is in the “best place possible to provide care”.
He maintained that “good progress” is being made on the effort to put 7,000 extra beds in place by March.
‘Worst we’ve ever seen’
On 1 January, Sky News counted 24 ambulances parked outside the A&E department at the Royal Stoke University Hospital.
A member of ambulance staff told Sky News that at one point in the day their official dashboard showed 32 ambulances were stuck waiting to transfer patients at the hospital, with additional vehicles waiting round the back of the hospital after space at the front was taken.
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Paramedic and representative of the UNISON union, Dennis Hodgkins, who works in Staffordshire, said that the situation is the “worst we’ve ever seen”.
He added that the “chances of survival are going to be reduced massively” following some Category One calls – like heart attacks or anaphylactic shocks – having taken him 25 minutes to respond to, 18 minutes more than the seven minute target.