UK ambulance service struggles in winter health care crisis

LONDON – Thousands of patients have been stranded long distances in ambulances outside of overcrowded British hospitals each week, a growing crisis that has likely contributed to scores of deaths, healthcare leaders said on Thursday.

The UK’s Ambulance Service is faltering in some areas as the country’s healthcare system faces an inferno of pressures, including rising demand for care following the easing of pandemic restrictions; a surge in flu and other winter viruses after two years of lockdown; and staff shortages from the burnout pandemic and a post-Brexit UK workforce drought. Thousands of hospital beds are also occupied by people who can be discharged but have nowhere to go due to a lack of long-term care places.

Official statistics show that in many areas, ambulances get stuck in front of hospital emergency rooms, sometimes for hours, because there are no beds for patients. Figures released by the National Health Service on Thursday showed that 31% of patients arriving by ambulance at hospitals in England last week waited at least 30 minutes to be handed over and 15% waited more than an hour.

Adrian Boyle, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told the BBC that “problems with emergency and emergency care” affected more than 200 people who died in England last week.

Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director for England, said the state-funded health service was “facing a perfect storm, with virus cases rising rapidly over the winter alongside ongoing pressure in emergency care and hugely constrained bed capacity”. He said the NHS has set up a series of “war rooms” across the country aimed at collecting data and sending ambulances to less busy hospitals to reduce wait times.

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Strikes will put even more pressure on the system. Ambulance workers in three different unions voted to hold strikes in December, part of a wave of action by workers in many sectors demanding wage increases to match record inflation. Nurses have also voted to go on strike for two days this month in areas covering around half of England.

“Right now it’s carnage – the worst I’ve ever seen,” said George Dusher, a paramedic in northern England who voted in favor of the strike. “People ring for an ambulance and then they’re stuck on the ground for 10 hours because we can’t reach them. Because of delays, we’re not getting to cardiac arrest fast enough.

“I used to see up to 10 patients during a shift, now it’s only three or four because of the delays in hospital admissions.”

The pressure has renewed a long-standing debate over the funding and operation of Britain’s National Health Service, set up in 1948 to provide free care to all, funded by taxes. As in other developed countries, longer life expectancies and an aging population have increased demand for the well-loved but constantly overwhelmed service.

The NHS has also long been a political hot potato. Opposition politicians accuse the Conservative Party, which has been in power since 2010, of consistently underfinancing or secretly privatizing the healthcare system.

The government says funds continue to rise in real terms. It said public sector workers are being offered wage increases but cannot afford to grant increases to keep up with inflation, which hit 11.1% in October.

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