THIRTY-FIVE patients have died is the past five years in London after ambulance delays of up to six hours.
The deaths – which included a nine-month-old baby, two other children, a student nurse, a mother-to-be and an 87-year-old woman with dementia – have exposed how NHS ambulance services, faced with sometimes chronic shortages of vehicles and staff, are struggling to cope with demand.
Around 1,000 ambulance service jobs have been cut in the last five years and paramedics are quitting as a result of stress, exhaustion and demoralisation.
One paramedic said: “I always wanted to be a paramedic, and the job has given me the skills to help people who are in need, and to save lives. No two days are the same. One moment you’re dealing with someone who has had a stroke, the next with someone with a broken limb. That part of the job is really satisfying. But since the 1980s, when I started, our call volume has risen drastically. Before, we used to do five or six jobs a day; now we are doing 11 or 12.
“On our shifts, five hours without a break is the norm and we usually go six to seven hours. Basic things like going to the toilet are set aside, as emergency calls obviously take priority. The situation often feels unsafe, because we aren’t eating properly, our minds aren’t working properly, and we become dehydrated. We are so busy that I know crews who have been on the road for 12 hours without a break. Just as we clear the job and hand the patient over to the hospital, another one comes in. It’s becoming diabolical. The workload far exceeds the number of staff we have.”
Coroners in England and Wales have issued official warnings, called prevention of future deaths notices, highlighting problems with lack of resources, an inability to respond quickly enough to 999 calls and poor care that have caused, contributed to or been involved in the 35 deaths.
In five of the cases the patient would or might have lived if either the ambulance had got there sooner or the attending crew had provided better treatment, coroners said.
The Department of Health branded the failings exposed as unacceptable as it voiced unease about the deaths.