Health leaders have warned that the NHS faces a “perfect storm” of challenges this winter, as new figures showed about one-third of patients in England last week waited more than 30 minutes outside hospitals in ambulances.
Data from NHS England on Thursday showed that, in the week to November 27, 23,999 of the 77,054 people who arrived via ambulance at hospital trusts in England waited more than half an hour before being transferred to accident and emergency services. Some 11,389 waited more than 60 minutes to be handed over to A&E teams.
Analysis by the Financial Times showed the percentage of ambulance handovers delayed by 60 minutes or more was at its highest since data became publicly available.
The figures will add to pressure on Rishi Sunak’s government to boost support for the NHS, which is braced for walkouts over pay, staff shortages and working conditions and already contending with limited patient bed capacity and a rise in flu cases.
Official guidance states that all ambulance handovers should happen within 60 minutes and that 95 per cent should occur within 30 minutes of a patient arriving at hospital.
Confirming the extent of the NHS’s staffing crisis, separate data showed the number of full-time vacancies rose to 133,446 at the end of September, the highest level since June 2017.
Unison this week announced about 80,000 health workers, including 999 call handlers, paramedics and ambulance, technicians had voted for industrial action, although only about 15,000 workers will strike because the largest public sector union failed to meet thresholds at a number of ambulance trusts.
The GMB union also said yesterday that more than 10,000 ambulance workers at nine of 11 ambulance trusts across England and Wales had also balloted in favour of strikes.
Both announcements follow confirmation by the Royal College of Nursing last week that roughly 100,000 staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would walk out on December 15 and 20.
NHS Providers, which represents hospital, community and ambulance services in England, urged Sunak to “take action to fix chronic staff shortages” and called on unions and the government to bring about a “rapid agreement to avert planned industrial action”.
“Trust leaders have done all they can to prepare for seasonal pressures, but their concern that this winter could be their hardest is fast becoming reality,” said Miriam Deakin, NHS Providers’ director of policy and strategy.
Additional weekly figures released by NHS England revealed a 40 per cent increase in the number of patients hospitalised with flu from 344 to 482. More than 13,000 beds were filled almost every day last week by individuals fit to be discharged.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, warned the health service was “facing a perfect storm with winter virus cases rapidly increasing alongside ongoing pressures in emergency care [and] hugely constrained bed capacity.”
“We have already said we expect this to be the NHS’s most challenging winter yet, which is why we started preparing earlier than ever before.”
The health service on Thursday launched 42 winter “war rooms”, where clinicians across England will be able to monitor a range of data, including bed occupancy and staffing levels, to divert ambulances away from hospitals that are under pressure and towards ones with more capacity.
The Department of Health and Social Care admitted services were “still recovering” from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic but stressed it was “taking urgent action to improve patient flow through hospitals, including providing an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds”.