Life-saving ambulance services in Leeds have come under fire as an investigation by the YEP reveals a stark postcode lottery for critical care.
Emergency response times to ambulance calls reached an all time low for Yorkshire in March, with not a single ambulance arriving within target time in some parts of the city.
The “alarming” figures are the worst on record for the county for the last five years - and come despite a warning from a watchdog that the situation must improve.
“It’s just unacceptable,” said Ray Gray, Unison regional officer for the ambulance service. “There are not enough ambulances. There are not enough paramedics. At a time when most areas are seeing a growing population, we know there is a growth in demand. But there isn’t a growth in response. This does play with people’s lives.”
The investigation is based on a series of requests for information to Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) for March 2016, just before the authority changed the way it records data.
Nationwide, NHS guidelines say 75 per cent of Category Red 1 life threatening calls, where patients are not breathing or do not have a pulse, are to be responded to within eight minutes.
At a time when most areas are seeing a growing population, we know there is a growth in demand. But there isn’t a growth in response. This does play with people’s lives.Ray Gray, Unison
But the figures show that YAS failed to meet its targets in Leeds, where just 71.7 per cent of calls were responded to in time in March. And in some areas, including Guiseley, Wetherby and Tadcaster, that figure is at zero per cent, with not a single ambulance arriving within eight minutes. YAS bosses were told to take action over targets last August, after a Care Quality Commission inspection.
Steve Page, executive director of quality, assurance and performance at YAS NHS Trust, said: “Overall demand for emergency ambulances is increasing year-on-year and this is reflected across the whole country. We aim to reach all of our patients as quickly as possible, including rural areas of our region, where sparsely dispersed populations present particular challenges for all emergency services.
“Whilst we are working hard to make further improvements to our response times, it is important to remember that they are not the only measure of the care we provide.”
Leeds MP’s pledge to take action
City mps have expressed their concerns over the disparities in ambulance response times, with the performance in some areas at a potentially disastrous level.
Across much of the city centre, paramedic crews are responding to critical calls well within target, with up to 100 per cent of top priority emergency calls responded to within eight minutes.
But in other areas, particularly in north and west Leeds, the figures are at zero per cent - with not a single top priority call responded to in time in March.
Stuart Andrew, MP for Pudsey, Horsforth and Aireborough, which have some of the lowest response levels, has pledged to take action.
“I am very concerned that these finding show that YAS appear to not be responding to any calls on time in some parts of my constituency,” he said. “This needs to be looked into urgently, and I will be raising this directly with the service to see what action they are taking to change this. More widely, I want to see response times approve across the country. It should not be a postcode lottery.”
Calls for more Government funds
Union leaders have said the big issue lies in funding for services, calling on the Government to intervene.
“We still have problems with ambulances going to A&E and they can’t get in,” said Ray Gray, Unison regional officer for the ambulance service.
“At really bad times, we can see every vehicle sitting outside a hospital.
“There are not enough ambulances. There are not enough paramedics.
“At a time when most areas are seeing a growing population, we know there is a growth in demand. But there isn’t a growth in response.
“This is a vicious cycle, the whole health service isn’t coping with the volume of patients. That doesn’t matter to a patient. If they want an ambulance and it is isn’t there, that’s not good enough.
“What we are seeing is the health service that the Government is prepared to fund -and it isn’t good enough.
“It’s just unacceptable.
“It’s not the paramedics’ fault, in many ways it’s not the trust’s fault. It’s down to the Government. And we can only see it getting worse.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We know ambulance services are busy but we expect patients to be reached quickly regardless of where they live, which is why we’ve increased paramedic training places by over 60% this year, on top of 2,300 extra paramedics that have joined the NHS since 2010.
“We are committed to the NHS and we have invested £10bn to fund its own plan for the future.”
YAS pilots new scheme
YAS is now taking part in the pilot of a new programme, which began in mid April, to try and tackle the delays.
This means that top priority and second priority calls - until now called Red 1 and Red 2, which had slightly more time to respond - will be assessed together under one banner.
As a result, the joint figures improved to 73.8 per cent, and then 76.8 per cent since April 21. “We are focused on working more efficiently and effectively, including in a closer and more integrated way with our NHS colleagues and emergency service partners,” said ambulance executive Steve Page.
Lost hours as crews queue at A&E
Powerless ambulance crews have been seen queuing to hand over patients to staff at overwhelmed Yorkshire hospitals in recent months.
Delays in the handover of emergency cases to A&E staff at Pinderfields Hospital, in Wakefield, saw paramedics waste an average of 13 working hours per day in May.
The tally of “lost hours” is among the worst in the region, closely following that of York District Hospital (14 hours).
Elsewhere both Leeds St James’s Hospital and Leeds General Infirmary recorded an average of two lost hours per day due to delayed handovers in May.
Guidelines state that handovers should take no longer than 15 minutes but crews are not allowed to leave until patients are signed over to the care of hospital doctors.
Delays mean paramedics are not available to respond to fresh 999 calls.
Dr David Macklin, executive director of operations at YAS, has said effective handovers between ambulance crews and hospital staff are “an integral part of delivering the best clinical care for patients”.
Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs Pinderfields, said delays are taken “very seriously” and work has been done to streamline the process.
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