COVID-19 crisis putting 'unprecedented pressure' on ambulance crews

·4-min read

Demand for hospital services caused by the rampant coronavirus has put ambulance staff in England 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.

The situation is similarly stark in Northern Ireland. Sky's senior Ireland correspondent David Blevins reports that Craigavon Area Hospital and Daisy Hill Hospital are "under huge pressure", while South West Acute Hospital is appealing for off-duty staff to report and assist with diverted patients.

Dr Anne Kilgallen, chief executive of Western Trust, said hospitals across Northern Ireland are facing into an abyss, with patient numbers well up on last spring's peak.

She said: "We can say that this situation is more grave than it has ever been in the course of this pandemic. I would go so far as to say our hospitals are facing into an abyss.

"At the moment one in four of the people in our hospitals have COVID-19. It's about 700 people. At the peak of the first surge there were 400 people in hospital so already we're in a very grave situation.

"The projections show this is likely to double by the third week of January."

Like the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is currently under severe lockdown restrictions.

In England, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has admitted the current pressure on the NHS was "very bad" and repeated the need for people to follow the rules.

Appearing on Ridge, 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."

Doctors have also warned the crisis facing the NHS across the board 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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Meanwhile, Sky News understands non-COVID patients could be admitted to the Nightingale Hospital in the capital from tomorrow.

The NHS in London was asked to make sure the Excel centre site was "reactivated and ready to admit patients" as hospitals struggled with rising cases of coronavirus at the end of December.