Delays in ambulance and hospital services as staff face ‘relentless pressures’

Ambulance and hospital staff still face enormous pressures (Photo Secamb)

Staff shortages, covid-related absences, increased demand and a lack of space for patients in accident & emergency delaying patient handovers are some of the pressures affecting response times for South East Coast Ambulance Service.

Data released for March shows that Secamb response times for patients with a serious ‘category 2’ condition, such as stroke or chest pains, was on average 39 minutes and 43 seconds. This is double the response standard which should be 18 minutes. For 9 out of 10 calls industry standards dictate there should be a 40 minute response time. For Secamb the 90% rate was one hour and 22 minutes.

For life-threatening calls Secamb is closer to target with an average 9 minutes and 34 seconds response time compared to the NHS standard which is set at 7 minutes. Ninety percent of calls should be responded to in 15 minutes and Secamb achieved 16 minutes 48 seconds.

The data comes from Ambulance Quality Indicators (AQIs) which were introduced in April 2011 for all ambulance services in England and look at the quality of care provided as well as the speed of response to patients.

The figure show that total 999 calls to Secamb compared to the pre-Covid equivalent month of March 2019 were up by 21.9%, pandemic period calls have shown both peaks and more static levels.

SECAmb says it is ahead of the national average for many of the response time performance targets.

South East Coast Ambulance Service (image Secamb)

A spokesperson added: “We have been extremely busy in recent weeks and continue to face high demand. We recognise that this means some patients are waiting longer than they should for a response and we are doing everything we can to reach those who need an ambulance response as quickly as possible while prioritising our response to our most seriously ill and injured patients.

“The public can help us manage demand by only calling 999 in the event of a emergency. We also urge the public to make use of alternatives to 999 for help and advice including speaking to their GP, a pharmacist, or by visiting or calling 111.”

A&E at QEQM Hospital in Margate Photo Chris Constantine

But it is not just Secamb facing backlogs and pressures. Emergency departments are also struggling. At East Kent Hospitals – Margate’s QEQM and Ashford’s William Harvey Hospital – some 17,596 people attended A&E in March with 7,438 of those waiting four hours or more for admission, transfer or discharge.

At a meeting of the East Kent Hospitals board this month, the Trust CEO said there were significant operational pressures and covid numbers were reducing but fluctuating, with a rise in staff sickness absence. The board also heard that there were nursing staffing vacancy challenges particularly at QEQM Hospital.

In the last 12 month period there were 1,264 new staff but 803 leavers, making a net gain of approximately 400 additional staff. An emergency department safe staffing review is also underway with a focus on QEQM.

In a bid to combat staffing issues there has been international recruitment which has increased from 30 a month to 40 nurses coming in during February and partnership working with universities and Kent and Medway Medical School (KMMS) in respect of honorary contracts and increased student placements. Incentives are also offered to secure agency staff cover.

The report said: “At the time of writing (28 March 2022) it is clear that the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron is now dominant across the UK. With the complete lifting of societal restrictions and waning immunity, this has led to some of the highest levels of Covid-19 yet seen in the community. Although community testing is now very limited, Office for National Statistics (ONS) data confirms this.

“This is reflected in the number of patients in our hospitals who have tested positive for Covid-19 (as well as large numbers attending Emergency Departments and other ambulatory areas). We currently have 201 inpatients, which is more than the peak in May of 2020, though fewer than half of the peak in January 2021.

“In the majority this is an incidental finding and mortality, morbidity and need for critical care remain low, but the operational pressure created is considerable. There is limited scope for moving to a more ‘business as usual’approach to managing Covid-19 until this peak passes.”

Health campaign group Save Our NHS in Kent (SONIK) says government needs to take urgent action to bring in and retain staff and must pump emergency funds into the health system.

A spokesperson said: “We would like to emphasise that no blame should be put on frontline staff in the NHS and the ambulance service, who are fighting to care for patients under very difficult circumstances; many of them will still be trying to recover from the trauma and exhaustion piled on them in recent years.”

“Professionals are pointing to ongoing staff shortages as being a major part of the problem. We call on our government to urgently take steps. They should be pulling out all the stops to bring more staff in and stop staff leaving, that means addressing conditions and pay, and ending toxic working cultures where they exist.

“Bed cuts in the NHS and social care are another factor – these need to be reversed. We need more beds, not less. Campaigners and unions have been calling on Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid to provide emergency funding to the NHS to stop it falling over under the backlog caused by the pandemic.

“We want to stress that these dire conditions are not down to the demands of Covid alone, they are the outcome of years of neglect from our leaders. People must understand that the NHS is not failing; it is being failed.”

‘Extreme pressures’

Dr Salwa Malik, South East Coast Regional Chair for The Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said the south east health system is under ‘relentless pressure,’ adding: “The data shows the strain that Emergency Departments in the South East are under. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, and all health care staff are facing extreme pressures. It is a seriously challenging situation. Patients are experiencing long waits in the Emergency Department waiting to be seen and, in the community, waiting for an ambulance.

“Widespread staff shortages and a huge shortfall in beds, these are causing huge delays and problems in the emergency care system. When we have no beds to move patients into, the waiting rooms fill up and ambulances begin queuing outside. Doctors and nurses have no choice but to deliver care in corridors and other inadequate spaces. These are deeply uncomfortable and unsafe practices that are distressing for patients and for staff.

“Morale is incredibly low among the South East workforce, they are overwhelmed and burnt out. Some shifts have fewer staff due to covid related absences, which spreads health care workers even more thinly. We want to deliver the best care possible, but the present circumstances are preventing us from delivering the high-quality effective care we are trained to provide.

“For things to improve in the South East the first step must be for our local Members of Parliament to work with councils and local authorities to improve and expand social care provision. Good social care supports the most elderly and vulnerable patients in their visits to A&Es and ensures a timely discharge when their treatment is complete.”

County Councillor Karen Constantine says she has been asking questions about the Trust’s recruitment plans, particularly how proposals to take on 400 new nurses will be fulfilled.

She said: “It’s important to look very closely at the data and plans, to avoid harm being done. I’m concerned that it may be very difficult to recruit 400 nurses, where exactly are they going to come from? I’ve asked Cllr Paul Bartlett, Chair of the Kent Wide Health and Overview and Scrutiny committee HOSC, to invite Hospital Trust Chair Niall Dixon to explain exactly how this recruitment strategy is going to be delivered.”

She says there is a need to know what the current figures are, how overseas recruitment will work and what it will cost, how UK talent will be developed and how under pressure hospitals will carry out training.

She added: “ I’ve also requested the data relating to strokes and access to treatment, particularly urgent admissions from Rachel Jones executive director for strategy and population health.

“I’m particularly concerned about the call to needle time, which, following the reorganisation to provide a HASU, we were assured would be under 2 hours. I’m still waiting for the detail despite writing on April 1 and providing reminders. Delays in ambulances are having a massive impact.

The clinical outcomes data for August 2021 (the most up to date available) shows a mean call to arrival time for the south east of close to two hours. That is very different from what is used in all the docs arguing for HASUs. We were specifically advised call to needle time would be within the two hour critical window.

The public rightly deserves this information. We need a laser focus from our NHS professionals.”


  1. I really feel for the staff at the hospitals and the ambulance service. I have a family member and friend who have waited an insane amount of time to be seen and put in to appropriate wards. However the problem is not the hospital but the lack of care from the GPs. If people could be seen, and when seen actually listened to and subsequent proper investigations carried out, their wouldn’t be the need to have so many people go through a&e. I have client after client facing these problems and it is mentioned daily as well as personal experience with my children and friends.
    Who is looking in to what the GPs are doing and how they can improve?

  2. Perhaps we should have targets for the populace to reach in terms of health and fitness, then compare their success in reaching them. If we’re to have an ever greater percentage of the fat and unfit it won’t be any surprise the nhs struggles. Especially as the the fat and unfit are not going to be as economically active and so contribute less to the nations tax take, as a result the nhs and its funding gets caught between “a rock and a hard place”. Add in substance abusers and the recklessly irresponsible for good measure.

  3. We waited almost 6 hours for an ambulance for my 80 year old grandmother. She had fractured her hip and in a lot of pain and we were unable to move her. Then another 5 hours waiting to be seen once in A&E. The staff are absolutely run off their feet and exhausted. With being saddled with ridiculous debt to even train to be a doctor/nurse, there is no wonder many are going to private hospitals or not even considering it as a career.

  4. I feel for the NHS. This government are just pretending Covid is not real. Education now no testing. Covid now on you sickness record. No mask wearing No responsibility. This will all have an impact on the spread of the virus. 2700 dead last week from Covid and no mention. If this was a suicide bomb with that many dead would be headline news. If this is living with Covid it isn’t working. Be honest what is happening. Give NHS and schools the support they need.

    • Spot on, “Kind Human”.
      The NHS is facing a double whammy.
      On the one hand this government has underfunded the NHS for over a decade, with staff numbers cut and facilities closed.
      Then we have covid. And, despite what the government would have us believe, covid is still with us, with infection rates still far above what they were in January.
      Indeed, the current strain is not as deadly as Delta, but it is far more infectious. So there are still thousands of people ill enough to require hospital treatment, in addition to all the other people who would attend A&E in “normal” times.
      If you have trouble contacting your GP, use one of the other facilities available. Your pharmacist, NHS online, or, if you’re really sick, A&E.
      And you might ask your MP what the government is doing to recruit and train more NHS staff, and provide facilities to the community.

  5. It’s important to note that the ambulance response times that are not being met currently are not some sort of a loose target or vague aspiration. They are limits that should not be exceeded: the NHS constitution says that the ambulance response time targets are “fundamental standards set the line below which care and treatment must never fall” and states that they are “legal requirements” that NHS providers must meet. Patients are being put in harm’s way all over over country. The major causes appear to be a lack of staff and a lack of beds in hospitals – a problem that has been building for the last decade as the government has cut beds, antagonised staff and continually failed to tackle the staff shortages/training/recruitment issue.
    The reduction of services during the pandemic peaks probably account for the rise in demand (ie 999 calls) – a worrying issue as it shows how delays to elective care eventually result in an increased need at the emergency end of services.
    The AQI shows that 999 calls have risen by 21%, but ambulance hours have also risen by 62%. That’s the number of hours ambulances are out on the job. Therefore this problem is not solely about an increase in 999 calls – something else is going on. The handover delays in hospitals are a big part of it, and we must also question if the longer ambulance journeys play a part. Many ambulance stations have been closed in recent decades and acute services are becoming more concentrated in fewer hospitals – we must question if this putting additional strain on ambulance services.

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