• Health secretary orders new plan to address ambulance queues at A&E departments
  • Senior figures concerned about accuracy of hospitals’ data
  • Ambulance bosses say handover delays problems “unacceptable”

Jeremy Hunt has told system leaders to draw up new plans to tackle handover delays this month after efforts to curtail ambulance queues outside hospitals failed this winter, HSJ understands.

The news comes amid concerns that hospitals’ data returns on ambulance handovers over winter did not fully reflect the scale of delays.

The health secretary told NHS bosses to identify the worst performing hospitals as part of the process which could see handover guidelines redrafted this summer, a senior source has told HSJ.

Ambulance chiefs said the ongoing handover delay problems were “unacceptable” and a represented a significant patient safety risk.

HSJ understands senior central and ambulance figures have raised concerns that handover data submitted to NHS England by some of the worst performing acute trusts on handovers this winter did not fully reflect the depth of the problem at their hospitals.

A senior central source said the acute trusts’ data, which was published regularly by NHS England during the winter, did not correlate with separate reports collected by ambulance trusts. The source said there was convincing anecdotal evidence to suggest the ambulance trusts’ data, which is not published, was the more accurate collection.

Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals and North West Anglia foundation trusts, were among trusts for which their ambulance provider reported a significant number of handovers over an hour which was not reflected in the NHS England figures. Norfolk and Norwich told HSJ it had since “resolved” the “data issue”.

United Lincolnshire Hospitals and Southport and Ormskirk trusts were among the worst performers according to both the ambulance trust data and NHS England’s figures.

Ambulance trusts collate data on the entire hospital handover process through the national ambulance information group, which has representatives from the ambulance trusts on it, while hospitals submit clinical handover data to NHS England as part of the weekly winter reporting programme.

The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives said it viewed the unpublished data as a robust collection. AACE said while the hospitals only record and report the “clinical” element, the ambulance trusts’ data included cleaning and preparation for the next job.

The Guardian reported last week that the unpublished data from ambulance trusts revealed significantly more handover delays than previous official data. The report said ambulance trust data showed 594,279 ambulances faced handover delays of more than 15 minutes between December and February, around three times worse than indicated by NHS England’s published figures.

AACE managing director Martin Flaherty told HSJ it was “now unacceptable for this problem to continue”.

“While we understand and accept that many of these delays are a symptom of system-wide pressures across health and social care, we also believe that some hospital managers could learn lessons from others where delays are less of a problem, by providing stronger leadership to deal with this growing patient safety issue,” he said.

The problems have arisen despite handovers being a core priority for system leaders to tackle this winter. A joint letter sent out to hospital chiefs by NHSE and NHSI bosses in November demanded action on what they said was a “symptom of a system-wide issue”.

Norfolk and Norwich FT said: “The data issue has been fully resolved and we have received confirmation that our data is being correctly reported.” It added that it was “working hard with the ambulance service to reduce handover delays” and was expanding its A&E.

The Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and NHS Improvement all declined to comment.