Urgent care patients facing five-hour ambulance waits in London

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Patients needing urgent ambulances in London faced five-hour waits this week as overrun A&E departments struggled to cope with demand, leaked emails show.

A series of emails sent to NHS 111 staff yesterday, seen by The Independent, also warned that urgent treatment centres (UTCs) across the city had been forced to close because they were full.

Staff were told to stop sending patients to at least six UTCs because they could no longer accept them.

Demand for NHS services has increased significantly in the past week due to an increase in Strep A cases combined with a flurry of winter viruses circulating.

On Thursday, The Independent revealed how A&Es across the country were “overflowing”, with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine warning that emergency departments had seen a doubling in children attending for the treatment of winter viruses.

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Emails sent yesterday from London Ambulance Service to NHS 111 staff directed them to “please manage patients’ expectations as they are extremely busy, Cat 2 is having severe delays of up to five hours in some cases”.

Cat two patients, such as those with a suspected stroke who are in need of urgent care, should receive a response within 18 minutes.

But staff were told not to give patients an estimated time for an ambulance response and to send all those needing urgent care treatment to the nearest A&E.

They were urged to tell patients: “I am requesting an ambulance for you, however, I must advise that the service is under extreme pressure, I must advise that immediate threatening patients will be prioritised for the nearest available crew.”

The email added: “Please do not call 111 or 999 to find out how long the wait is as this blocks lines for other patients.”

Emails also show patients who should have received calls within two hours were facing four-hour waits, and those within the six-hour bracket were being told they’d get a call the next morning.

A London Ambulance Service spokesperson said: “Our services and staff are currently extraordinarily busy, and we are very sorry to those patients who have waited longer for an ambulance during this challenging period. We would like to reassure the people of London that we are doing everything we can to reduce our response times and respond to our sickest and most seriously injured patients as quickly as possible.

“Over recent months we have been receiving up to 7,000 emergency calls a day, compared to a pre-pandemic busy day of about 5,500 calls. To help reduce delays and pressures, we are working with hospitals and NHS partners across the capital to develop and implement new pathways and to reduce delays to handover, as well as increasing the number of crews on the road and staff in our control rooms.”

‘A&E was like Damascus’

David Roberts, from north London, described scenes at Royal Free’s A&E this week as being “like Damascus”.

His young son developed a rash and after being sent to Finchley Memorial urgent care centre, he was told they would have to go to an A&E as there were no doctors available.

After taking a taxi across London to the Royal Free Hospital, it took 20 minutes to see a receptionist then a further 30 minutes to see a triage nurse. He said the medical staff were wonderful once they’d gotten through.

“Because it looked comparatively serious [for my son], we were ushered straight through. But, when we came out about five or six hours later, after having seen the doctor, and after having tests, there were still people who were there [from before]. There was a kid behind me in the queue. They were still out in the waiting room.

“The waiting area is small, and it was overflowing with sick kids and concerned parents. So, while this was grim in and of itself, one can only imagine how many infections are being transmitted with all the sick kids coughing and spluttering in such a comparatively confined area for hours on end.

“I understand this is a structural issue that can’t easily be changed, but it’s worrying that this seems to be becoming a new normal. Overall, it just took me back to Damascus back in the day.”

The news comes as the latest national NHS data, published on Thursday, showed record A&E waiting time delays in November.

Ambulance response time data for London has not been published since September after the trust found inaccuracies in the data it had been submitting.

However, figures for outside of London show it took an average of 48 minutes and eight seconds to respond to category two calls, such as strokes, in November.


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