Paramedics are taking strike action as they feel there is “no end in sight” to the crisis engulfing London's hospitals, an ambulance worker has warned.
Julie Cunnane, an emergency medical technician who has worked at the London Ambulance Service for 26 years, said medics felt "guilty" that they could not provide adequate care to patients and that the pressure was "unsustainable".
“When I first started we were waiting around for patients to call us – now it's the other way round. You feel guilty when you have to tell a patient that you don't know how long they will have to wait with you in an ambulance,” she told the Standard.
“At the same time, you know there are patients calling you out there with serious conditions and you can't respond to them. I've never seen it like this. Years ago, we would have seen 7 or 8 patients per day, now we are lucky to see 3 or 4.”
Ms Cunnane, a UNISON representative, said that London paramedics were under "constant" financial stress and many were leaving the profession as a result.
"Everyone I know has had to cut back or come in and to extra shifts just to make ends meet. Staff leave for a number of reasons but many have to look at other options because of the cost of living in or around central London.
"None of us want to come out on strike. If the Government came in with a decent offer we wouldn't be out on the picket line today."
Ms Cunnane said she had waited 4 hours in an ambulance outside a hospital with her first patient during a particularly busy shift on Boxing Day.
“There’s no end in sight, it’s not getting better,” she added.
Daniel Elkeles, chief executive of the LAS, said Category One calls, including cardiact arrests, and serious Category Two calls for “life and limb conditions” - including strokes, heart attacks and sepsis - will still be responded to.
He has urged people only to call 999 for “life or limb-threatening” situations and NHS England has said that 111 should be the “first port of call” for any condition that is not life-threatening.
The latest figures showed more than 1,800 ambulances in the capital faced a delay of over 60 minutes when handing over a patient to A&E in the week up to January 1. This is a rise of 29 per cent on the week before.
It means 15 per cent of ambulances arriving at London’s hospitals faced a delay of more than an hour. The target is for handovers to be completed within 15 minutes. Ambulance chiefs have warned that handover delays are leading to patients dying.
Dr John Martin, chief paramedic at the LAS, told the Health and Social Care Committee last month that paramedics were spending their entire shift taking care of patients waiting to be discharged into A&E.
NHS England say that the delays have arisen as hospitals are struggling to discharge patients and free up capacity in A&E, with many beds occupied by patients in need of adult social care who have nowhere else to go.
Talks between Health Secretary Steve Barclay and health unions failed to yield a settlement on Monday but union officials have indicated they would consider a one-off payment to end the strikes.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, If it was a really good one-off payment, if it was a really good offer for next year that was going to be backdated, then we would look at any of them."
Unison's head of health, Sara Gorton, acknowledged that the union had stepped up its action by including call handlers in Wednesday’s walkout.
“The message is there that we’re, you know… there’s escalation room, but we’re equally willing to talk, we want a resolution,” she said.