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Patients are watching Netflix box sets in the back of ambulances outside hospitals due to escalating delays, Britain’s paramedic leader has said.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Tracy Nicholls, chief executive of the College of Paramedics, revealed that ambulance staff are now often in full-time “conflict resolution” mode, as desperate patients deteriorate in car parks.
The delays getting people into hospitals – in some cases more than seven hours – are exacerbating ambulance waiting times caused by staff absences due to omicron.
Reports have emerged of patients waiting in agony for more than 24 hours for an ambulance to arrive.
Ms Nicholls’ comments came in the week when it emerged that an ambulance service in the North of England was asking even heart attack victims to get a lift to hospital.
She revealed that some hubs had only four out of ten vehicles operating due to the high number of paramedics off sick.
Those that are operational are then often stuck outside overcrowded A&E departments for hours, unable to safely discharge their patients.
“I never thought we would be in a situation where patients have died waiting in ambulances out the back of hospitals,” she said. “It’s almost like we have become desensitised, that it’s not big news now.
“But actually it’s awful and something needs to change.”
Ms Nicholls said the situation outside some hospitals was so bad that doctors were increasingly offering minor treatment and diagnostics, like taking blood, in the car park.
Nineteen ambulances were pictured queueing outside Torbay Hospital and Devon last week.
“Paramedics are spending all their time apologising to everyone for their waits and distress,” she said.
“If you’ve got a tricky or awkward relationship with the patient, you could be sitting with them for several hours in the back of a metal box and tensions can build.”
‘Paramedics are innovative creatures’
She added: “But paramedics are innovative creatures.
“I’ve heard that some crews have streamed Netflix onto their trust iPads and strapped it to the stretcher so that those patients who are able can watch shows while they wait.”
New NHS data released on Friday showed that across England nearly a quarter of ambulance arrivals were delayed by 30 minutes or more, while almost one in 10 ambulance arrivals were delayed by at least an hour.
However, Ms Nicholls said pressure on services was not spread evenly across the country, with staff absences and resultant delays “exploding” in certain areas.
Particularly worrying, she said, are the “category two” calls for conditions such as suspected heart attack and stroke, which have an 18-minute target response time.
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“Response times have now tipped into 40 minutes, but if you’re having a heart attack and have got chest pain then 18 minutes itself might be too late.
“The fact that it’s now extended doesn’t mean paramedics have let someone down, it just means they haven’t got the resources.”
Gillian Keegan, the health minister, criticised the leaked memo from North East Ambulance Service advising call handlers to suggest to heart attack victims to get a lift to hospital, saying: “That doesn’t sound to me like that’s an acceptable approach.”
The Armed Forces have now been called in to drive ambulances in the North West due to the high numbers of staff ill with Covid or isolating. The Ministry of Defence announced on Friday it would send in 150 personnel.
Meanwhile, official statistics showed a 60 per cent rise in the number of hospital workers absent because of Covid in the last week.
Figures leaked to Health Service Journal showed that almost 120,000 staff were off on Wednesday, around one in 10 workers.
During periods of extreme pressure before Covid, hospitals practised a system of “cohorting”, whereby four ambulances worth of patients could be looked after by one or two paramedics in a hospital waiting area before being seen by hospital staff.
This cannot be done now, however, due to infection control rules. “Delays are nothing new,” said Ms Nicholls. “What’s different is the sustained nature and the scale of it.
“It brings with it a new skill set: conflict resolution… Assaults on staff have increased during Covid because of people’s frustration and anger.
“It’s a terrible state of affairs… I’d hate to think people would lose trust in the ambulance service.”
NHS chiefs have said that military support is likely to last for several weeks.