“Perfect Storm” of Delays in A&E and Ambulance Services Risk Lives

Patients’ lives are being put at risk due to a “perfect storm” of long waiting times in accident and emergency departments causing significant delays in ambulance handovers, with the situation showing no signs of improving.

There is concern that it is only a matter of time before patients suffer serious harm, or death, following reports that a 72-year-old man from Whitchurch, Shropshire was left waiting more than 10 hours for an ambulance (article here).

Long waiting times in emergency departments are becoming normal, with some patients spending days in A&E wards before they can be admitted into hospital. This then means that ambulances have to wait outside the doors of A&E departments for beds to become free before they can hand over sick patients for assessment and treatment. The sight of queues of ambulances outside of hospitals is now a worryingly common sight, and shows a system that is beginning to creak under immense pressure.

The situation is not isolated to one area of the country. NHS figures from September show that 5,025 patients waited for more than 12 hours to be admitted to hospital in England. That is only 1% of the 506,916 admitted via A&E, but it is more than 10 times as many as the 458 waiting more than 12 hours in September 2019 and nearly twice as many as the January peak of 2,847. Some hospital trusts are declaring major incidents as they have simply run out of space to treat patients.

In October this year, a patient in Cambridge died in the back of an ambulance whilst waiting outside an overwhelmed hospital A&E department (article here). In that case, the patient suffered a cardiac arrest while paramedics were waiting to hand her over to A&E staff and were forced to wait outside with other ambulances because the A&E unit was “extremely busy”.

Sadly, people do die in an ambulance on the way to hospital or at a scene of an incident. But no one should die in the back of an ambulance parked outside an emergency department waiting to be admitted for investigation and treatment. The situation is becoming desperate, and as the NHS faces another critical winter period whilst already under immense pressure from COVID and staffing issues, it is simply a matter of time before patients start to suffer real harm as a result.

For more information, please contact our clinical negligence team.