Winter is always a difficult time for the NHS – but this year, the knock-on effects of the pandemic mean that the limits on its capacity may be dangerously exposed. New figures published on Thursday revealed that a record 5.8 million people are waiting for hospital treatment, and that the proportion of A&E patients seen within the NHS’s target of four hours was the lowest since the current records began in January 2010. Meanwhile, occupancy of wards has already hit its expected winter peak.
Nowhere are these problems more obvious than in the ambulance service. A shortage of beds for arriving patients means that paramedics who once completed seven or eight jobs on a shift are now forced to wait in queues outside A&E units, “babysitting” their charges instead of moving on to new cases who sometimes wait for hours before they hear the siren that signals help is at hand. The most urgent calls now wait an average of nearly 54 minutes – up from 45 minutes in September. For less urgent calls, the average is upwards of three hours – and it can be much longer. The College of Paramedics has called the situation “unacceptable”, saying “patients are waiting too long and that is putting them at risk”.
To understand how these grim figures play out on the ground, the Guardian’s Steven Morris went out on a shift in south Wales with Lee Davies, a paramedic, and Keith Rogers, an emergency medical technician (EMT). In this episode, Morris tells Nosheen Iqbal the story of that shift – and the patients kept waiting for hours to get the healthcare they need. And we follow Davies and Rogers as they describe their frustration while trying to get the job done in the most trying of circumstances.
You can read Steven Morris’s October piece: “You can queue for a whole shift”: the crisis facing Welsh ambulance crews, here. And you can read a story by Denis Campbell published on Thursday: NHS ambulance delays leaving patients stuck at GP surgeries for hours, here.