25.09.2022

Scandal of ‘deeply concerning’ 999 calls that aren’t even answered for NINE minutes

People in some parts of the country are waiting more than nine minutes for their 999 calls to be answered. The postcode lottery of ‘life-threatening’ delays means some callers are waiting longer to report their emergency than it should take for the ambulance to arrive.

The British Heart Foundation last night described the hold-ups as ‘deeply concerning’ and warned ‘every minute matters‘.

West Midlands residents have their calls answered in an average of just three seconds, while those in the South West are typically waiting one minute 20 seconds.

But one in every 100 callers in Yorkshire was made to wait nine minutes 28 seconds to speak to somebody in April, according to the latest NHS England data.

South Central and South Western ambulance trusts also made one in 100 people wait more than seven minutes that month. An ambulance is supposed to arrive at the most urgent life-threatening emergencies within seven minutes.

The postcode lottery of ‘life-threatening’ delays means some callers are waiting longer to report their emergency than it should take for the ambulance to arrive. The East Midlands has the best average 999 answering times, whereas Yorkshire suffers the most

One in every 100 callers in Yorkshire was made to wait nine minutes 28 seconds to speak to somebody in April, according to the latest NHS England data

Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, admitted last month she would order a taxi to take her family to A&E rather than dial 999

Given the number of calls these three trusts took, it suggests thousands of people were still hanging on the phone at a time when their ambulance should potentially have already been with them. Separate figures show patients are then made to wait longer than they should for an ambulance to turn up and longer still to be handed over to doctors at A&E.

The revelation comes after Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, admitted last month she would order a taxi to take her family to A&E rather than dial 999. Calls to 999 are initially answered by a BT operator who transfers requests for an ambulance to the local trust. NHS England expects trusts to answer these calls within ten seconds.

But the national average in England in April was almost three times longer at 28 seconds, with one in ten callers waiting more than one minute 33 seconds and one in 100 four minutes 12 seconds.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation and a consultant cardiologist, said: ‘When someone has a heart attack or a stroke, every minute matters. Any delay to treatment could cause permanent damage to the heart or brain.’

Ambulance workers yesterday said ambulance calls in England have increased by more than six million in the past decade, rising from 7.9million call-outs in 2009/10 to 14million in 2021/22.

More than 1,000 ambulance workers have left their jobs since 2018 to seek a better work-life balance, more pay, or to take early retirement, the union added.

Ambulance services are expected to reach people with the most serious life-threatening illnesses or injuries in an average time of seven minutes and hand all patients over to A&E within 15 minutes of arriving at hospital.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan said that when someone has a heart attack or a stroke, ‘every minute matters – any delay to treatment could cause permanent damage to the heart or brain’

However, the latest figures show the average response time to these calls was nine minutes two seconds in April and the average time for patient handovers was 36 minutes. A staggering 11,000 handovers took more than three hours with the longest delay 24 hours.

Ambulances also took an average of 51 minutes and 22 seconds to respond to emergency calls such as burns, heart attacks and strokes. The target is 18 minutes. The Daily Mail revealed on Saturday that the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch is carrying out a nationwide review of the waits outside A&E departments amid fears for patient safety.

Dr Rubina Ahmed, associate director for policy and research at the Stroke Association, said: ‘I am incredibly worried that this deepening crisis situation for the ambulance service could have life-threatening consequences for stroke patients. When stroke strikes, time is of the essence because for every minute stroke goes untreated, 1.9million brain cells die.’

NHS England said people should dial 999 only in an emergency and seek care through other services such as 111 in non-life-threatening circumstances. A spokesman added: ‘Half of all ambulance calls in England are answered within three seconds or less.

Ambulances also took an average of 51 minutes and 22 seconds to respond to emergency calls such as burns, heart attacks and strokes. The target is 18 minutes

‘The NHS has invested £150million in ambulance services to help meet increased pressures, this includes boosting the number of 999 call handlers by 20 per cent compared to last September.’

South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust said: ‘Due to the whole health and social care system being under sustained pressure, some people are experiencing longer call answering times than they would expect. However, we have robust plans in place and we’re already seeing that our call handling performance is improving.’

Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust said: ‘We have recruited an additional 69 emergency call handlers in response to increased pressures and last month our average answer time for 999 calls was six seconds.’

South Central ambulance service did not respond to a request for comment.

Daisy Cooper MP, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, said the long hold times were ‘unthinkable’ for families dealing with a medical emergency and likely to add to their distress at a ‘deeply traumatic time’.

She added: ‘The government must take urgent action to fix our ambulance services and ensure 999 calls are responded to as soon as possible.

‘People need to know that when they are facing an emergency, they will be able to access the urgent care they need.’

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