Safety watchdog launches national investigation into ambulance delays

Exclusive: Ambulance handover delays pose ‘serious safety risk’, the national patient safety watchdog has warned

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Thursday 02 December 2021 07:16
<p>A paramedic walks past ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital</p>

A paramedic walks past ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital

The national patient safety watchdog has launched an investigation into the “significant patient harm” caused by Ambulances being forced to wait with patients outside of A&E, The Independent has learned.

The Health and Safety Investigation Branch has confirmed it intends to launch an investigation after it received several alerts expressing concerns over the issue of ambulance delays this year.

The investigation comes after The Independent revealed 160,000 patients had either died or come to harm as a result of delayed ambulance response times during 2020-21, which were being driven by delays in paramedics being able to hand over patients to hospitals.

The damning report, from the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, included examples of severely ill patients not being treated properly, being forced to go to the toilet in ambulances, and being denied food and drink, as well as antibiotics and fluids.

There have been multiple reports of patients dying while waiting for ambulances or while waiting outside of A&Es on the back of ambulances. On Friday, South Central Ambulance Service Trust announced it had requested military aid to deal with the extreme pressures it was facing.

In a statement to The Independent , HSIB said: “We recognise that handover delays pose a serious safety risk, potentially leading to significant patient harm and impacting on the wellbeing of NHS staff. We welcome the review by AACE as they have provided detailed insight and highlighted key safety concerns. HSIB has already received several referrals expressing similar concerns, which will be taken forward to a national investigation. We will work with AACE and others across the NHS to provide systemic safety learning to help address the challenges created by handover delays.”

The safety watchdog is still in the early stages on scoping its investigation and so details on precisely how many deaths or incidents of harm it will cover has not been decided. It will publish details in early 2022.

In March this year, HSIB published a report warning patients who faced ambulance delays while suffering heart attacks could be denied life saving treatment.

Ambulance response times have continued to deteriorate since summer and according to an analysis from Bond Turner the average response time for patients rose by 25 per cent in October compared to September.

Patients in the southwest, according to the report, experienced the longest delays for an ambulance, with waits averaging just over two hours.

Of those in most urgent need of care, with potentially life-threatening conditions, patients in the southwest also faced the longest delays.

Ambulance response times are being impacted by increased waits outside of A&Es, and earlier this year NHS leaders wrote to all hospitals telling them to “immediately” stop all delays.

Martin Flaherty, managing director of the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives said:“We very much welcome this forthcoming national investigation by HSIB into unnecessary handover delays at hospital emergency departments, which is something we called for in the report we published last month. These avoidable handover delays continue to cause significant harm to great numbers of patients on a daily basis and we will be working closely with HSIB providing support with their investigation on behalf of the sector.”

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