Skip to main content

Ambulance Waiting Times

Volume 615: debated on Monday 17 October 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Griffiths.)

It is a pleasure to address the Chamber under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is also a pleasure to see in his place my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health, who is a very able Minister.

My speech is not an attack on the Government per se. It is my job as the MP for South Dorset to stand up and speak for people without fear or favour. In my six years as MP, I have seen the ambulance service increasingly struggle, and I hope that any information that I impart will lead to the improvement of the service.

I pay tribute to the men and women of the ambulance service, whose professionalism, dedication and selflessness have saved countless lives. People’s ability to dial 999 in an emergency in the expectation of receiving urgent and expert medical help has long been one of the NHS’s treasures. Now, it is the ambulance service itself that is facing an emergency. In the year to May 2016, ambulance response times hit a record low. Not a single one of the 10 ambulance trusts in England met the target of reaching 75% of incidents within eight minutes. Worryingly, the current national average for a response within eight minutes is 68%. This trend has grown over the past four years, which is the period for which the Government have published response figures.

Ambulance control rooms across the country are buckling under the twin strains of increased demand and dwindling resources. The increased demand is undeniable. Last year set a new record, with 10.8 million ambulance call-outs in 12 months—a staggering number. The London control room alone now fields 5,000 calls for ambulances every single day.

The numbers show that emergency calls for ambulances have risen by 6% year on year for 10 years. This has not been helped by the fact that people are finding it harder to see their GP, meaning that they fall back on A&E. Although we can debate the causes, the fact remains that there are simply not enough vehicles, paramedics and clinicians to cope with the increase in workload. At the same time, the resources available have been cut or frozen. Six of the 10 English ambulance service trusts are currently in deficit, having overspent their budget, despite making efficiencies. East Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust alone had a £12 million deficit last year.

In my constituency, efficiency savings have directly affected the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust, which I shall refer to from now on as the trust. An ambulance call-out in the trust now costs 2.5% less than last year. The trust covers Bath and north-east Somerset, Bristol, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire, Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire—a huge predominantly rural land mass covering 20% of England. I highlight the trust’s area of responsibility because it is the most rural of all the ambulance trusts and the area is one of the most sparsely populated, which means longer distances, higher fuel costs, patients who are harder to locate and hospitals that are more spread out. This means that ambulances need to be parked at intervals across the region, as I see all the time.

Achieving response times and meeting budget targets under such circumstances is a challenge. It is not just the increased demand and reduced resources that are creating the problems; the target culture does not help. Though well intended, targets can skew both priorities and outcomes. For example, to meet target times, a fast-response paramedic on a motorbike or in a car might be sent to a critical incident that would almost certainly require ambulance transportation to hospital. Those red-category incidents include life-threatening emergencies such as cardiac arrest, where survival depends on swift and specific action. Sending the wrong resource in such a case might well tick the target box on response times, but the eventual outcome might not be so satisfactory. For example, if responders reach a patient only one second short of the eight minutes, it is considered a success, even if that patient dies.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the House. In 2014-15, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service met its eight-minute deadline in only 60% of cases. Such problems beset all of us across the United Kingdom—here on the mainland and in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that it may be time to share those experiences and also ideas about how we can make things better across the United Kingdom? If we can do that together, to see what improvements we can make, we will all benefit.

I entirely concur. As I said at the start of my speech, I am not here to condemn the Government, because they have the most appalling situation to deal with, given rising costs and all the things we know about the health service. Yes, more integrated systems, which the Government are working on, are definitely part of this. As I will say at the end of my speech—perhaps I will say it now—we really ought to think about the whole NHS and how it is run, not just the ambulance service. We need to do that free of politicians, with expert advice being sought from non-politicians—those who know how the health system works, not least the clinicians—so that we can re-look at this whole situation. We have enough money, but we have not spent it particularly wisely in every case.

Let me just go back to my example—you might well have lost the thread, Madam Deputy Speaker—about the target times for red-category incidents. I was saying that if responders reach a patient only one second short of the eight-minute target, it is considered a success, even if that patient dies. Conversely, it is deemed a failure if a patient lives, but help has arrived just one second over the eight-minute response time. Worse, the trust is marked down for it.

Once at the hospital, ambulance crews face yet another target: they must hand over their patient to the emergency department within 15 minutes. Anything over 30 minutes incurs a fine, although it is not applied to all areas and is capped by the trust’s commissioners. Yet, handovers can be achieved only if there are available beds and bays in the emergency department, which in turn can free up space only by transferring patients to wards or into surgery. That flow—from ambulance to emergency department to ward and, hopefully, to home and recovery—simply is not happening, because beds are not being cleared. The so-called bed blockers—the chronically ill and often elderly patients—languish in hospital beds because there simply is nowhere else for them to go. Without enough community care outside the hospital to discharge them to safely, there is no alternative, and so if the wards are full—they often are—there is gridlock. Regrettably, we have all become accustomed to the sight of ambulances lined up outside the emergency department with their crews tending to their patients until they can be handed over. In August this year, ambulances delivered patients to the Royal Bournemouth hospital’s emergency department 650 times. The 30-minute handover target time was breached 91 times, and in eight cases patients waited for more than two hours.

It is perhaps not surprising that ambulance crews feel demotivated and demoralised, and A&E staff are equally under pressure. They are all attempting to do their best—everyone recognises that—but perhaps that is in a system that sets them up to fail. Unsurprisingly, the attrition rate in the ambulance service in England is running at 11% a year, leading to each ambulance service having to replace more than one in 10 of its call handlers, drivers, clinicians or paramedics. I am told that these invaluable, experienced professionals eventually buckle under the physical and emotional demands of their jobs, often leaving for the better hours, conditions and pay offered by GP surgeries and clinics. The retention of staff is notoriously difficult in A&E departments, too, for similar reasons. A recruitment crisis now faces the ambulance service and A&E departments. Yet, for these most dedicated and professional workers, without whom the NHS would grind to a halt, there is little light on the horizon. Instead, and extraordinarily, fines are imposed on the cash-strapped services employing them.

Hold-ups from ambulance to A&E represent a waste of precious resources; in the trust’s area, that amounts to a staggering 5,000 hours per month, and the south-west’s hospitals are by no means the worst performing in England. For that reason, the trust and the Yorkshire and west midlands ambulance services have been trialling a new response programme. The aim is to get the right resource to the right incident first time. Rather than sending a response vehicle to meet a target, more time is taken to identify the reason for the call-out. Something that is life-threatening, such as strokes and heart attacks, will inevitably need an ambulance transfer to hospital, whereas a less serious case can be dealt with by a paramedic. Members might have thought that that sounds like common sense, but it seems to me, and I think to many, that targets, in part, get in the way of common sense. Sheffield University will report on the results of the programme. Interestingly, Wales is already using the system, with a 75% success rate, and Scotland is starting trials now.

Inevitably, waiting times for ambulances are increasing as pressures mount. Regrettably, there are consequences for the patient and, of course, their family and friends. Less well known are the physical and verbal assaults on ambulance staff. In the trust’s area alone, those have doubled in 12 months—that situation is, I am told, untenable. Death threats have been made to control room staff, while physical injuries have included a broken jaw and a career-ending attack with a baseball bat. Often, drink and drugs are to blame; sometimes, mental health issues, pain, sheer anxiety and frustration make relatives and friends lash out. I am not, for one second, condoning that behaviour—in fact, I condemn it—but I am just trying to explain it. I have some experience of this with constituents who are devastated when they do not get the emergency response they expect—when we dial 999, we do indeed expect a speedy response.

Ambulance service staff are united in calling for a formal, ongoing public information campaign that tells the public not only when to call an ambulance but what to expect when one is called. With the number of calls continually outstripping the number of ambulances available, expectations need to be managed. I would be grateful if the Minister expanded a little on that when he answers. By way of example, in Dorset and across the whole trust area, 58%—nearly 60%—of 999 calls do not result in patients being sent to A&E at all, and 14% of callers are treated and advised over the phone.

Calls to make funding for ambulance services and A&E a special case chime with calls for increased social care provision to free up beds in hospitals so that a flow can be re-established. That is particularly important in Dorset and the south-west, where so many pensioners choose to live.

I would like to share some observations from Mrs Fiona Smith, who is the manager of Milton Court sheltered housing in Poole, which is not in my constituency. Her charges, who are all in their 80s and 90s, live independently and successfully in their own homes, with support services provided by the company. If they suffer heart attacks or strokes, the ambulance arrives within 10 minutes, she says, but if they fall down, the importance of the incident is downgraded by call handlers due to immense pressure from other incidents. Mrs Smith recently waited for more than four hours with a frail 96-year-old lady who remained lying on the floor with a broken hip because protocols would not allow staff to lift her. Mrs Smith is at pains to point out that she is not criticising the ambulance staff; she simply believes that there is insufficient funding and staff. Her advice to me and the Government, and to others, is that we need to get our priorities right.

I know there is no short-term solution to the picture I have painted, and I sympathise enormously with the Government’s plight. In the past, Governments of all colours have had this massive problem, which is growing as the population gets older and lives longer, and the cost of medical care rises. More joined-up care is one way forward, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested. I praise the clinical commissioning group in Dorset, which is working with all GPs and hospitals to try to ensure that a more joined-up care approach is working. I believe that that is happening across the country, and I am sure the Minister will expand on that. This is a vital way forward that will solve some of the problems.

Perhaps, as I hinted—I do not know whether the Minister can expand on this—we need to re-examine the whole NHS, rather than just picking on particular bits of it. Now and in the past, when politicians and Secretaries of State sometimes feel that that things need to be done—and they do—they unfortunately fail to look at the whole picture. This is not a criticism of our current Secretary of State, for whom I have high regard; I think he is doing an extremely good job in difficult circumstances. However, perhaps now is the time—as we see, to a certain extent, the writing on the wall and the warning signs flashing—for us to sit down and have another look at how the NHS is run. I leave that point with the Minister and his Department. I can only recommend that politicians are kept out of that debate until such time as ideas are put forward to us, because inevitably we would have to make the final decisions.

I end as I began by praising the staff of the ambulance service in the south-west, not least those who serve us in South Dorset and do a fantastic job. I have met many of them and cannot praise them enough. I now look to the Minister to expand on what I have said in the hope that there is some light at the end of the tunnel, and perhaps a little more money at the bottom of the bucket.

It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to join you a little earlier than anticipated and to have you in your place presiding over this important debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing the debate. I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss ambulance response times and to put on the record, as he did, my thanks to all those who work in ambulance services across the country, not just in the south-west. Ambulance services are a vital part of the healthcare system and provide rapid assistance to people in urgent need of help. We are all united in expressing our gratitude to them for the professional work that they do.

I acknowledge that the NHS is busier than ever. That is why we are backing the NHS’s future plan with an extra £10 billion by 2020-21, providing some of the funding that my hon. Friend concluded his remarks by calling for. The ambulance service is experiencing unprecedented demand in all parts of the United Kingdom, including, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), in Northern Ireland. It is delivering over 3,400 more emergency journeys every day in England than in 2010. In the past year, calls to ambulance services in England rose by 400,000, from 9 million in 2014-15 to 9.4 million in the year ending in April. Including calls transferred from NHS 111, ambulance services deal with more than 10 million 999 calls every year.

The demands currently being placed on ambulance trusts mean that performance targets have been, and continue to be, under pressure. South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust has seen a particularly sharp increase in demand for its services. In the year to date, there have been 11% more calls in the south-west than at the same time last year. These calls have led to over 1,800 face-to-face responses by the service, on average, each and every day. In June this year, the Care Quality Commission inspected the service, and recently published the report of its findings. Overall, the trust has been awarded a rating of “requires improvement”. Within this rating, there were some positive findings. In particular, the trust was rated as outstanding for being a caring service, and the majority of feedback from patients about their individual experiences was favourable. However, it was also deemed to require improvement for its emergency operations centres, emergency and urgent care, and patient transport services, on which my hon. Friend focused.

I am sure my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are undertaking a range of initiatives to meet these challenges. Sir Bruce Keogh’s review of the NHS urgent and emergency care system is tackling the root causes of demand. Under that review, ambulance services will be transformed into mobile treatment centres. As a result of significant advances in technology in recent years, an ambulance presenting at a patient’s home, or to wherever it is called to treat them, is in a far better position to provide more care without, in many cases, the need to transfer them to hospital. There is greater use at the front end of “hear and treat”, which closes calls with advice over the phone, and “see and treat”, which treats patients on the scene without onward conveyance. This is all happening as a result of the greater integration with the rest of the health system that my hon. Friend called for. The CQC recognised the trust as one of the highest performing in England on “hear and treat”, which enables clinicians to assess and triage patients over the telephone and close the call without the need to send an ambulance.

As part of the wider review, under the ambulance response programme that my hon. Friend mentioned, NHS England is exploring ways in which to change responses to 999 calls by the ambulance service to help improve patient outcomes and help ambulance services better to manage demand. The first element of the ARP is “dispatch on disposition”, which was first piloted in London and in my hon. Friend’s local trust area in the south-west. “Dispatch on disposition” gives call handlers more time to make a clinical assessment of 999 calls that are not immediately life threatening, ensuring that the most appropriate response, based on clinical need, is sent to each incident first time. Early analysis shows benefits for patients from “dispatch on disposition”, and I have recently accepted advice from NHS England to extend this pilot to all trusts to help inform the independent evaluation.

My hon. Friend focused much of his speech on his, I think, personal aversion to targets, and on some of the perverse consequences that can arise. Under the second phase of the programme, we are piloting new clinical codes in ambulance services in Yorkshire, the west midlands and the south-west. The codes are used by ambulance services to determine the appropriate response for each emergency call they receive. The trial seeks to ensure clinically appropriate responses to each presenting condition while making the best use of our ambulance resources.

The programme has clinical leadership at its heart and will be independently evaluated by the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield, which my hon. Friend acknowledged. The evaluation report will be laid before Parliament once the Secretary of State has made a decision on whether any changes are needed to the ambulance standards. The most seriously ill patients will continue to receive an eight-minute response under the programme, and a pre-triage system is being used to ensure that life-threatening cases are identified quickly and efficiently. Good progress continues to be made with the programme and NHS England will make recommendations to Ministers in due course.

My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way, especially after I had so much time. I have just one question. Yes, my natural instinct is against targets; I do not like them, but I understand why we have to have them. When ambulance trusts or hospitals are fined for not meeting targets, would it not be more logical to look into the reason why and ask the executives, whoever they may be, to sort it out? If they cannot do so, can we then sack them? If the conclusion is that it is a matter of giving more money to help towards achieving the target, obviously it should be given.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the clinical commissioning groups around the country commission services from ambulance trusts. I am sure he will have looked into the experience of the CCG in his constituency to see whether it believes it is getting the service that his constituents and its patients require. I can speak for my area, where a change to the disposition of response vehicles, particularly ambulances, was proposed by the ambulance service. A trial period took place, and the CCG was persuaded that it needed to provide more money to the ambulance service to fund additional crews to improve coverage. It is specific to individual areas, but CCGs need to work with ambulance trusts to ensure that the relevant standards are achieved.

The South Western Ambulance Service established an action plan in response to the CQC report to identify activities to improve its performance and demonstrate the benefits of the ARP, including addressing staffing and fleet requirements, and working with A&E departments in hospitals to which it conveys.

My hon. Friend made some startling observations about the challenges and consequences of extended handover times, and his examples were instructive. It is clearly a problem when ambulance crews are unable to discharge their patients into emergency departments as efficiently as they would like. NHS Improvement is working with local commissioners and trusts to tackle those problems, including handover delays, when they present a continuing problem. The amount of time lost to handover delays at hospitals is a significant concern in the south-west service, as he indicated. He mentioned an aggregate figure. The figure I have is that, on average, 60 hours per day were lost to handover delays in August 2016. In July, a regional workshop was run by NHS England and the Emergency Care Improvement Programme, attended by the South Western Ambulance Service, acute providers and commissioners. A set of actions to address handover delays were agreed upon and a plan to implement them is being developed. Hopefully he will see the benefit of that shortly.

We recognise that there is currently a shortage of paramedics nationally. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the south-west area is no exception. A number of initiatives are being implemented to address that, from recruitment campaigns for ambulance staff and paramedics, to training schemes to upskill the existing workforce. In the CQC report, it found that South Western Ambulance Service has an appropriate mix of skills to provide a safe service, and that, where staff numbers are below planned levels, the trust is making good efforts to recruit new staff.

At the end of September, there were 1,568 ambulance paramedics at the South Western Ambulance Service, almost double the number of ambulance paramedics there in 2010. That is an impressive achievement, but there remains a vacancy rate at the trust of just over 3%, equivalent to 134 members of full-time staff. Health Education England is working with the College of Paramedics and has invested more than £2 million in a two-year paramedic pre-degree pilot, through which potential paramedic students are recruited into roles providing structured care in urgent and emergency care settings. Health Education England is also providing funding to ambulance services to invest in their existing workforce, train ambulance technicians to become paramedics, and upskill paramedics to advanced or specialist paramedic level.

In the south-west, Health Education England has provided £350,000 in funding to help retain staff so that they stay longer than my hon. Friend indicated they have in the past, and to improve engagement and provide the opportunity to train with the very latest equipment. I am pleased to note that 100% of the trust’s rapid response vehicles and dual-crew ambulances are funded to have a paramedic on board. In the six months to May 2016 there was, on average, a paramedic on almost 92% of all A&E conveying vehicles. The service is approaching the level for which it is funded, and I hope those initiatives ensure that there are sufficient paramedics to hit that 100% target.

In addition, to help to reduce system pressures, NHS England is undertaking a public information campaign about urgent care services. My hon. Friend urged us to do that to encourage the public to present at the right place and do the right thing. In particular, he referred to the use of NHS 111 as a front door to the integrated urgent care system to help improve its credibility as the place to get initial advice, rather than people dialling 999.

To conclude, I again emphasise that ambulance services are vital to emergency care and the NHS as a whole. We all want to be sure that, where loved ones suffer heart attacks or are involved in a serious accident, they will not be left waiting for medical help to arrive. The initiatives being taken in response to the record demand facing the urgent and emergency care system will ensure that patients continue to receive the quality care that they need.

My hon. Friend concluded his remarks by asking for a new approach to the integration of NHS services, to which I would add the integration of NHS services with social care services. He could have been describing the sustainability and transformation plans that are currently being finalised by health areas across the country for presentation to NHS England by the end of this week. They are bottom-up plans prepared by clinicians and senior management within NHS organisations alongside local authority organisations responsible for social care, which is precisely what my hon. Friend called for. I am pleased to say that, under this Government, that is being delivered.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.