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Thousands of 999 calls put on hold with record A&E waits as health service buckles before lockdown ends

Exclusive: More than 12,000 999 calls were put on hold during June because there were too few staff to answer

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Friday 09 July 2021 07:46 BST
Related video: Coronavirus in numbers

Hospitals across the country are already in crisis mode with more than a week to go before the end of lockdown restrictions exacerbates the surge in Covid cases.

The care regulator on Thursday said the summer crisis was causing “very real” challenges as demand increased significantly in emergency departments and hospital wards.

Data seen by The Independent shows thousands of patients are being kept on hold for at least two minutes before 999 calls are answered, while new figures show record numbers of trips to A&E last month.

Four ambulance trusts have issued “black alerts” in recent days, with queues to admit patients and waits of up to 15 hours inside hospitals.

But despite the concerns of NHS leaders, health secretary Sajid Javid said on Thursday that the timetable for ending lockdown would not be changed.

“We feel very comfortable with the plans we have set out, despite the rise we are going to see in infections,” he told the Local Government Association.

“I think they are going to be a lot higher by July 19 than they are today, I think into August they are going to be even higher than that.”

During the month of June, a total of 12,451 people were put on hold for at least two minutes while dialling 999 across England because there were too many calls and not enough staff to answer.

This compared to just 1,528 in April this year. For some patients in cardiac arrest, every minute could make a difference to their survival.

London Ambulance Service, the South Western Ambulance Service, East Midlands Ambulance Service and the North West Ambulance Service have all declared alerts in the past week, meaning services were under “extreme pressure”.

With some hospitals already having to cancel operations, NHS leaders have warned patient safety will be at risk if coronavirus cases reach as high as 100,000 a day in a few weeks.

The government is pressing ahead with plans to end social distancing restrictions on 19 July and on Thursday announced people who had received both vaccine doses, as well as under-18s, won't have to isolate on their return from 147 “amber list” countries from 19 July.

England’s care regulator on Thursday said the summer crisis facing the NHS was real and significant.

Ted Baker, the chief inspector of hospitals at the Care Quality Commission, said the watchdog would be monitoring the situation closely and would take action to protect people if necessary.

He told The Independent: “The current challenges faced by NHS hospital services are very real, with a significant increase in demand and pressure impacting on both staff and patients.

“We are seeing record levels of attendances at emergency departments, high bed occupancy rates and growing waiting times for elective care. In this environment it is essential that services focus on maintaining a strong culture of safety to protect patients and support staff.

“We are monitoring services closely and we will follow up where we identify any risk, taking action to protect people where necessary. Across the whole of urgent and emergency care services, staff are under significant pressure and we will continue to listen and act where either they or patients raise concerns.”

The latest NHS data, released on Thursday, shows that June was the busiest week on record for A&Es.

At Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital, record numbers of A&E patients have seen waiting times reach 15 hours at least twice this week. A trust spokesperson said 10,976 patients had attended A&E between 1 June and 6 July. It was warned by the CQC in March about long waits and overcrowding.

South Western Ambulance Service confirmed it was still operating at the highest escalation level on Thursday, after several weeks.

In the last nine weeks it has seen 20,000 incidents a week compared to 18,500 a week before the pandemic. In the week to 4 July, the trust saw its busiest week, responding to a total of 22,041 incidents.

A spokesperson said: “Our service is currently experiencing very high demand, which means we must prioritise critically ill patients.

“We are asking the public only to call 999 in a genuine medical emergency when somebody is seriously injured or ill and their life is at risk, and for other medical concerns we encourage patients to contact NHS 111 for advice and support.”

The chief executive of West Midlands Ambulance Service has told staff long delays in handing over patients at hospitals is leading to “tragic consequences” for patients.

Some staff working for the trust have faced an extra four hours on top of their 12-hour day waiting to hand over a patient at hospitals.

Chief executive Anthony Marsh said: “You have told us how late finishes are impacting your lives and your mental health. It is also having a causing serious detriment to patient care, with tragic consequences in some cases.

“It cannot be right that we are not able to get to some category two patients in a timely manner – these are patients with heart attacks and strokes where time really matters. There is no question that patients are coming to harm.”

Six out of the 10 busiest days ever for the West Midlands service has so far been this month, with 36,336 999 calls between 1 and 7 July, a 32 per cent rise on the same period in 2019.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine said the government must take urgent action or the NHS would face a worse crisis than it has in any previous winter.

The head of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, also warned patient safety was at risk if the NHS came under pressure as coronavirus cases hit a predicted 100,000 a day.

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