• Record level of delays despite fewer people going to hospital
  • On two days, one in 10 patient handovers took an hour or longer
  • Experts point to “clear bottleneck in patients coming into hospitals through ambulance services”

The number of ambulances waiting more than an hour to hand over patients hit a new high last week as pressure from coronavirus increased  — even though the number of people being taken to hospital has dropped.

NHS England figures released today showed 5,513 ambulances waited more than an hour from 4 January to 10 January. This was the highest figure for at least three winters (the figures are not released at other times of the year).

On each of two days — 4 and 5 January — more than 1,200 ambulances were delayed beyond an hour. This accounts for roughly one in 10 of the patients going to hospital by ambulance on those days. 

However, just 86,063 patients were conveyed to hospital during the week, down 10 per cent on the 95,738 people taken to hospital during the same week last year and the lowest number of patients across three years of data.

The Nuffield Trust’s deputy director of research Sarah Scobie said there was a “clear bottleneck in patients coming into hospitals through ambulance services” despite NHS staff’s efforts, particularly in speeding up discharges.

Figures for emergency performance in December 2020 — also released today — showed 3,745 accident and emergency patients waited more than 12 hours from the decision to admit to getting a hospital bed, a record for a single month in at least three years. 

While type 1 A&E visits were 24 per cent below those in the previous December, nearly one in five patients waited more than four hours to be admitted or discharged.

King’s Fund chief analyst Siva Anandaciva said the figures released today showed “the NHS is now under the most extreme pressure seen in recent history and is battling on multiple fronts”.

Ambulance services responded to 766,487 incidences in December 2020, which is down 3 per cent on December 2019’s 790,294. However, while 56.8 per cent of December 2019’s patients were then taken to A&E, just 51.9 per cent were taken to emergency departments last month. Ambulance crews were also more likely to treat patients on site, with 34.3 per cent of call outs being dealt with this way last month, compared to 30.4 per cent in December 2019.

December’s data for ambulance response times also showed the impact of the pandemic, especially in areas such as the South East and London. Response times for the most serious cases — category one calls, which are those deemed immediately life-threatening — generally held up well. However, London Ambulance Service Trust struggled with category two calls — which include heart attacks and strokes — with an average response time of 44m 45s against a target of 18 mins. In December 2019, its performance was 26m 42s.

With urgent but not life-threatening calls — category three — South East Coast Ambulance Service Foundation Trust took an average of 2h 35m 13s to reach patients, with 10 per cent waiting more than 5h 51m 35s. The target for the 90th percentile is a response within two hours. In December 2019, its average was 1h 53m 46s and its 90th percentile performance was 4h 11m 54s.