More than 40 people have died so far this year after delays at an ambulance service, figures show.
The number of deaths in the West Midlands is at a six-year high with the final month of 2022 yet to be included.
The figure can be revealed as ambulance staff hold strike action over pay and staffing today with the health secretary warning that the 999 system will be under ‘severe pressure’.
In June 2022, nine patients were classed as deceased on arrival at hospital after calls to West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) – the highest number of any month in the timeframe.
In total, 44 people died before a treatment or procedure, according to figures held by WMAS, which serves a population of 5.6 million people.
The service told Metro.co.uk today that the ‘vast majority’ of the incidents were due to long hospital handover delays and it is ‘working incredibly hard’ to speed up the process.
Around 25,000 ambulance workers in England and Wales are walking out today amid severe pressures that include the worst waiting times on record at A&E departments.
The strikes include one by the GMB which began at 12am and runs until midnight, and another by Unison which starts at noon and has the same end time. Around 600 military personnel have been drafted in to cover the staffing gaps.
Emergency staff taking part have told Metro.co.uk how ambulances are effectively being used as ‘hospital cubicles’ outside overburdened A&E departments. One described how frustrated crews sometimes spend entire 12-hour shifts waiting to hand over patients.
Ambulance staff including paramedics, emergency care assistants and call handlers are joining the industrial action but will respond to the most serious emergencies that cannot otherwise be covered.
These include ‘life or limb’ Category 1 calls and some in Category 2, which covers emergencies such as burns, strokes and epilepsy.
The action, also involving Unite the union, follows the government saying that ‘economic circumstances’ mean an above-inflation pay rise is not affordable. Health secretary Steve Barclay warned today that the ‘system will be under very severe pressure’ and people should ‘exercise their common sense in terms of what activities they do’.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: ‘The Government has had months to intervene and end this dispute. They chose not to.
‘It’s Steven Barclay who is holding the country to ransom, not the unions. He will have to carry the can if patients suffer.
‘The shocking statistics from West Midlands Ambulance Trust tell the real story. Where were the government’s “well-rehearsed contingency plans” when people were dying in the West Midlands because the crisis in the ambulance service meant an ambulance couldn’t get to them on time?
‘This government is guilty of criminal negligence in its hollowing out of the NHS long before now. The strikers are actually trying to save the service.’
A BBC Newsnight investigation broadcast earlier this month found that the number of people in the West Midlands who died after an ambulance delay had risen from one in 2020 to 37 up to September this year.
In 2017 there were no incidents at all, followed by two the following year.
Since the programme was aired, the number has climbed to 44 amid the backdrop of industrial unrest that includes another strike on December 28.
One patient, Darren Childs, told how he waited 47 minutes for an ambulance when his 12-month-old daughter, Myla, stopped breathing for a time.
With the target response time being seven minutes, Mr Childs, from Shropshire, expressed his fear that ‘we are losing the NHS’.
A 400% rise in Serious Incidents, defined as avoidable serious outcomes caused by problems with care, has also taken place at the trust, according to documents seen by Newsnight.
Trust board minutes show many incidents were related to the management of cardiac arrest and choking, but a senior insider told the programme-makers that a root cause was long handover delays.
The service maintains that it is now taking less than 50% of patients to A&E, with a Clinical Validation Team assisting over the phone or organising transfers to other parts of the NHS such as occupational therapy or advanced nurses in the community.
This is intended to free up ambulances for those who need them most with further schemes including an Ambulance Decision Area at University Hospitals Birmingham which is said to have cut delays by half.
The dedicated area is staffed by advanced paramedics and ambulance healthcare assistants with additional skills who can free up crews by starting tests before patients enter emergency departments. WMAS also maintains that it has the best call-answering performance in the country.
A spokesman said: ‘We have seen a significant increase in the number of cases which have been called Serious Incidents.
‘The vast majority of these are where patients have come to harm as a result of ambulance crews being unable to respond to patients in a timely manner, due to the level of hospital handover delays.
‘The ambulance service relies on each part of the health and social care system working together so that our ambulances can get to patients in the community quickly.
‘Sadly, the pressures we are seeing in health and social care lead to long hospital handover delays with our crews left caring for patients that need admitting to hospital rather than responding to the next call.
‘The result is that our crews are delayed reaching patients.
‘We are working incredibly hard with all of our NHS and social care partners to prevent these delays, looking at new ways to safely hand over patients quickly so that our crews can respond more rapidly and save more lives.’
The Department of Health and Social Care responded to Unite’s criticisms by highlighting efforts ‘to get ambulances swiftly back on the road’.
A spokesperson said: ‘We recognise the pressures the ambulance services face, and are investing an additional £3.3 billion for both next year and the year after to rapidly improve urgent and emergency care performance to pre-pandemic levels.
‘For this winter, the government has provided an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds – and the NHS is creating the equivalent of at least 7,000 more general and acute beds, to help reduce waits for admission from A&E, and get ambulances swiftly back on the road.
‘We have also made significant investments in the ambulance workforce – the number of NHS ambulance and support staff has increased by over 40% since September 2010 – and NHS England will publish a long-term workforce plan next year to recruit and retain more staff.’
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