Demand for hospital services caused by the rampant coronavirus has put ambulance staff under “unprecedented pressure”, with handover delays on a scale not seen before, a paramedic boss has told Sky News.
Speaking on the Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Tracy Nicholls, chief executive of the College of Paramedics, said some crews had reported waiting up to nine hours to transfer a patient over to hospital staff in areas where there is high demand for NHS services.
This had also led to long hold-ups in getting ambulances to people in need, with some patients waiting “up to 10 hours”, she warned.
Her comments came as Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the current pressure on the NHS was “very bad” and repeated the need for people to follow lockdown rules.
Doctors have also warned the crisis facing the NHS threatened to get worse in the coming weeks, as figures for COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths hit record highs.
In London, where rising coronavirus cases have risked overwhelming hospitals, firefighters and police officers have been drafted in to drive ambulances.
Ms Nicholls told Ridge: “It (the ambulance service) is under unprecedented pressure.
“We are very used to seeing ambulance services take some strain over the winter months due to the normal pressures we would see any particular year.
“But this year particularly has seen incredible pressure because of the clinical presentation of the patients our members are seeing. They are sicker.”
She added: “We are seeing the ambulance handover delays at a scale we haven’t seen before.
“Our members have reported to us they can wait as little as half an hour. We’ve had some members wait five, six, seven, eight and even nine hours.
“But I would say the hidden risk – your viewers can see the ambulances at the hospitals – that doesn’t take into account the huge number of patients that are waiting for an ambulance that can’t get to them.”
While there “does not appear” to be a delay in ambulance response times for life-threatening call-outs, there was for other emergency cases.
She said: “Category three calls would be things like abdominal pains or falls, and some of those patients in those high-pressure areas have waited up to 10 hours.”
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Also appearing on Ridge, Health Secretary Matt Hancock highlighted the plight of the health service.
He said: “The single biggest thing that anybody can do is to follow the stay at home guidance.
“There are limited exemptions. Only if you can’t work from home and if you need to go out and get shopping or take some exercise.
“But these are highly-limited for a good reason and that’s because the pressure on the NHS is very, very bad and we need to bring the case rate right down.
“So it’s on all of us really, it always has been a big team effort.”