Paramedic sees just one patient in 14-hour shift due to lack of hospital beds

21 November 2021, 14:20 | Updated: 21 November 2021, 14:29

Ambulances queue outside a hospital in Cornwall waiting for beds to become free
Ambulances queue outside a hospital in Cornwall waiting for beds to become free. Picture: Twitter

By Daisy Stephens

A student paramedic saw just one patient during a 14.5-hour shift despite surging demand for ambulances, because there was no bed space at the hospital for her to leave her patient.

The South Western Ambulance Service (SWAS) paramedic, who did not want to be named, told LBC she spent the whole shift waiting outside the hospital for a bed to become available, something she said was a "regular occurrence".

"On the night [of this shift] there were 21 ambulances ahead of us on our arrival," she said.

"This is a regular occurrence.

"I know many colleagues who have waited longer than this with their patients, too."

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She explained that the hold-ups at the hospital could result in people dying waiting for ambulances.

"Whilst we are tied up at hospital, we are unable to respond to even the most life threatening of calls," she said.

"At times, Control have no resources to send to these calls and people die as a result."

She said the helplessness experienced by staff during these situations takes a mental toll, saying: "We can hear our radios going off with requests from Control asking if there are any resources that can make themselves available to respond to Cat 1 calls - the most life threatening.

"To not be able to respond is causing moral injury amongst staff and morale seems to be at an all time low."

The paramedic – who, during a normal shift, would expect to see between three and six patients – told LBC that urgent action was needed to address the issue, which, whilst she is based in Truro, Cornwall, she said is "nationwide".

"I, and other colleagues, are extremely worried about the pressures faced by the NHS across the country," she said.

"It’s a nationwide issue now and something must be done."

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When asked what could be done to tackle the crisis facing the health sector, she said the Government needed to make the caring profession more appealing to attract the staff it desperately needs.

"They need to incentivise caring as a profession," she said.

"At the moment, it’s poorly paid, often with unsocial hours, and that needs to change."

She also said greater investment was needed in other branches of the health service.

"In Cornwall, we are particularly challenged as we only have one major hospital to serve the whole county, which is wholly insufficient to cope with the expanding population," she said.

"Reinvesting in cottage hospitals for rehabilitation of patients would also be an option.

"There are so many options that would improve the situation."

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A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said they were "doing all we can" to support NHS staff and healthcare services.

"We’re investing £5.4 billion over this winter including £478 million to help get patients out of hospital," said the spokesperson.

"The NHS has given ambulance Trusts an extra £55 million to boost staff numbers in control rooms and on the frontline.

"Adult care homes and home care providers will also benefit from our £162.5 million investment in the recruitment and retention of care workers."

Demand for ambulances is on the up, both in the south west and across the country.

Publicly available NHS data shows over 133,000 calls were made to SWAS in October 2021 – an increase of nearly 30 per cent since September 2019.

Amanda Prichard, head of NHS England, said last week that pressures on urgent care systems in hospitals are "even greater" than those caused by Covid, and described a "rebound" of demand for emergency services including the highest ever number of 999 calls in a month.

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A spokesperson from SWAS said they were experiencing the "highest-ever level of sustained demand on our service", adding: "Our response times are directly affected by the time it takes us to handover patients into busy hospital emergency departments which is longer than we have ever seen before.

"We are losing many more hours compared with recent years which causes our ambulances to queue outside hospitals and unable to respond to other patients, and has an inevitable impact on the service we can provide."

When asked about ambulance pressures during Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Boris Johnson thanked paramedics for "doing an amazing job" and said the Government was supporting them with more investment.

"We are supporting them with more cash - another £450 million was awarded to 120 trusts to upgrade their facilities and we're putting another £36 billion into dealing with the backlog which is fundamentally affecting the NHS so badly at the moment through the levy that we've instituted," he said.

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The spokesperson for SWAS said the pressures on ambulances could only be alleviated through a "system wide solution".

They said: "This is a something which requires a health system wide solution and it is an absolute priority for us and our NHS partners to reduce these delays, so we can be there for our patients, while prioritising those who are most seriously injured and ill."

They also encouraged patients to make use of the non-emergency 111 number, to allow ambulance services to "focus on those most in need".