‘We’re fighting a war’: London paramedics tell LBC they are struggling to cope

5 January 2021, 11:21 | Updated: 5 January 2021, 21:53

London paramedics say they aren't coping with the strain brought on by the pandemic
London paramedics say they aren't coping with the strain brought on by the pandemic (stock image) . Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

London paramedics have told LBC it has taken them up to 11 hours to get to urgent 999 calls as they struggle to cope with the onslaught of Covid-19.

Garrett Emmerson, CEO of the London Ambulance Service, told LBC's Swarbrick on Sunday that the service was “coping”, but the overwhelming response from paramedics on the front line is: “No we’re not”.

The LAS are now the busiest they've ever been, with between 7,500 and 8,000 calls being made every day by people asking for help.

On the number of calls the service has received, Mr Emmerson said: "We are busier than we’ve ever been in our 999 services and indeed 111 and my staff are doing an incredible job, our staff and our volunteers out there every day working harder than they’ve ever had to work before…..It’s really tough but we are managing to cope at the moment.”

But Mr Emmerson’s comments have sparked fears amongst emergency medics the public will not fully understand just how serious the situation is, and if it goes on for much longer more people are going to die.

One paramedic, Katie*, told LBC how each paramedic would typically attend one or two cardiac arrests a year, but between January 2020 to January 2021 some have dealt with over 100 - the vast majority of them being Covid patients.

In one instance a man went into cardiac arrest in the hallway as his two small children looked on from the other room, and Katie said scenes like this are becoming an alarmingly regular occurrence.

The sheer number of cases means that in some instances, paramedics are struggling to reach patients in time, meaning some have tragically died in their homes.

Other paramedics claimed while Mr Emmerson might have sincerely meant what he said, he didn't have the knowledge or experience of life on the frontline to make those assertions for them.

“He’s corporate. He doesn’t wear a uniform, he wears a suit. We’re not talking about someone who knows how to do our job, or even understands what our job involves,” Richard* said.

“I understand there is not a pool of people who are former paramedics who are qualified to be a chief executive, but to have a distinct lack of understanding of what we do means he doesn’t know what it’s like.

“All he has to do is walk downstairs into the control room, or speak people on the ambulance station and I don’t think he’s doing that, he’s playing the politician and ultimately p***ing people off.

“If spoke to us he’d realise we’re fighting a f***ing war, and he’s talking about how we’re ‘coping’. It doesn’t look like coping to me”.

paramedics are working at the frontlines of the pandemic, and they say they're being failed
paramedics are working at the frontlines of the pandemic, and they say they're being failed. Picture: PA

Katie added: “Granted Garrett is getting a lot of abuse from staff at the moment, but he doesn’t know what it feels like to be at a house in London at three o’clock in the morning at a drunk guy's house with his family saying he’s unconscious with some of them looking like they’re going to knock you out.

“Sitting in an ambulance with a Covid positive patient for six hours while we wait for a hospital bed is really f***ing stressful.

“It was a blatant disregard for the stress the staff are experiencing, and it was horrible. I know he didn’t mean to do it, but the effect it’s had on us is horrible.

“What he’s basically said there is the mental health of my staff and the physical strain it’s taking doesn’t exist, and everyone’s fine and we’re coping. And we’re not.

“We’re losing friends, we’re losing relatives, losing loved ones, losing colleagues.

“And in one statement he’s brushed it under the rug.”

Paramedics across the board have also said how the support they are offered is little to none, and they are told to just go off sick if they express the truth about the mental strain they are under.

“It’s horrific. We’re tired. We’re so f***ing tired,” Richard says, choking back tears.

“There’s no escape. You go to work and you see some horrible stuff anyway but you come away from that and you would usually have other stuff to distract from that.

“In normal times you do some bad jobs and then you have an opportunity to de-stress from that and you can see your friends, spend time with family or play sports.

“We just don’t have that. On top of being in a very, very stressful job and the trauma it brings we also have to stay away from the people we love.”

Another said: “It’s all well and good there being well-being teams, but I don’t want to go and do yoga, what I’d quite like is counselling I can go to, a 24/7 emergency hotline I can call to speak to someone.

“We are dealing with a 7/7 bombing but on a much quieter scale and on a much bigger scale.”

One paramedic warned of a "staff exodus" if the situation doesn't change.

“The second the pandemic ends there is going to be a mass exodus of staff. We’re not being paid enough for the life-saving job we do – granted we don’t go into the job for the money but we are paid very, very little money – and we are treated badly by the public and by management.

“Why would anyone stay?”

The paramedics LBC spoke to were clear: A full lockdown was needed to free up ambulance crews to do what they are trained for - saving lives.

Yesterday, Boris Johnson granted them that wish, plunging England into a nationwide lockdown - allowing people to only leave their homes for limited number of reasons.

Katie said: “During the first lockdown people did what they were told to do, and people got tired of it because they’ve not been touched by it."

“We’re all sat watching what’s happening now and thinking it’s not going to get any better because no-one’s turned round and said: ‘Right, that’s enough, people need to stay in their houses’.”

“Full lockdown gave us breathing room. Where people are going out now we are dealing with the everyday stuff, drunks, stabbings, things like that, on top of the Covid cases.”

When contacted by LBC, a London Ambulance Service spokesperson acknowledged that frontline crews are under enormous pressure due to the pandemic, but insisted they are "trying to do everything we can to look after the physical and mental health of all our staff."

They said: “Our frontline ambulance crews and call handlers are under enormous pressure trying to help unprecedented numbers of patients, working tirelessly in the most challenging of circumstances. What they’re achieving by responding to more 111 and 999 calls, and helping more patients each day, than at any time in our history is incredible.

“Despite their professionalism, relentlessly hard work and exceptional patient care, as clinicians, many of our staff are inevitably distressed that patients are waiting for much longer than they normally do and that often, they are not able to provide the level of care we usually aspire to.

"We are trying to do everything we can to look after the physical and mental health of all our staff, including 24/7 welfare and clinical support.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities.