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More than 500 deaths in England last year after long ambulance wait


More than 500 seriously ill patients died in 2022 before they could get hospital treatment after the ambulance they requested took up to 15 hours to reach them, a Guardian newspaper investigation has revealed.

The fatalities included people who had suffered a stroke or heart attack; whose breathing had collapsed, or who had been involved in a road accident. In every case, an ambulance crew took much longer to arrive than the NHS target times for responding to an emergency.

At least 511 people died in these circumstances in England after a 999 call during 2022, according to NHS ambulance trusts’ figures and coroners’ inquests verdicts.  The death total was more than double the 220 known comparable deaths in 2021.

Coroners, senior doctors and ambulance staff say the scale of the loss of life illustrates the growing dangers to patients from the crisis in NHS emergency care services.

President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which represents A&E doctors, Dr Adrian Boyle, said: “These 500-plus deaths a year when an ambulance hasn’t got there in time are tragic and avoidable. These numbers are deeply concerning. This is the equivalent of multiple airliners crashing.”

Rita Taylor, 84, died at home in Milton Keynes after falling at home, banging her head and developing bleeding in her brain. The inquest into her death heard that an ambulance was called at 10.28am but “due to lack of resources it did not arrive until almost seven hours later at 17.17.”

Milton Keynes coroner, Tom Osborne, concluded: “The delays in sending an ambulance resulted in a number of lost opportunities to admit her to hospital and begin her treatment.”

He was so concerned by the ambulance delay that he issued a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report, a legal warning notice, to the NHS minister, Will Quince, and South Central ambulance service.

The 511 deaths are likely to be an underestimate as only three of England’s 10 regional ambulance services provided full-year figures for the last two years as requested.

The Guardian obtained figures for four others in their board papers. Three others, London, East Midlands and East of England ambulance services, did not provide, and do not publish, any data on such deaths, even though all 10 trusts are obliged to do so quarterly as a way of improving care.

The North East ambulance service (NEAS) recorded 248 deaths in 2021 in cases where its crews could not respond in time to patients deemed to be a category 1 or category 2 emergency. That was more than double the 122 “delayed ambulance response” deaths it had in 2021.

Ambulances are meant to respond to category 1 calls within seven minutes and category 2 calls in 18 minutes. When motorcyclist Aaron Morris, 31, was involved in a crash while riding in County Durham, the NEAS took 49 minutes and 49 seconds to respond, despite six different calls asking for urgent help.

NEAS’s investigation found that an ambulance was not allocated until 25 minutes after the first call, and there was a 95% chance that he would have survived if delays that impeded his care had not happened. NEAS’s chief operating officer, Stephen Segasby, offered Morris’s widow, Sam, and family his “sincere and heartfelt condolences.”

West Midlands ambulance service (WMAS) and Yorkshire ambulance service each recorded 70 such deaths last year. In WMAS’s case, that was more than treble the 22 it recorded in 2021.

The GMB union’s head of policy and research, Laurence Turner, said: “These new figures expose the brutal reality in ambulance services. The horrific scale of this loss of life is placing an unbearable strain on staff and patients’ loved ones. This is a hidden scandal and sadly we know that the true number of deaths will be much higher. More than half of GMB ambulance members have witnessed a fatality due to delays.”

NHS leaders, staff groups and thinktanks all blame increased demand for care, years of underfunding and lack of staff for hospitals being so overloaded that they have to force patients to stay in ambulances outside for many hours, leaving paramedics unable to respond to other 999 calls.

A NHS England spokesperson said: “The NHS has delivered significant improvements in ambulance performance in recent months with response times for category 2 calls an hour faster in January and February  2023 than in December.

“We know there is more to do, which is why the NHS has launched its urgent and emergency care recovery plan, which sets out how we plan to reduce waiting times and boost capacity, with hundreds more ambulances, thousands more beds, and increased use of measures like urgent community response teams.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said: “No one should be waiting longer than necessary for emergency care and we are taking urgent action to reduce waiting times. We have set out a plan to deliver one of the fastest and longest-sustained improvements in emergency waiting times in the NHS’s history, backed by record funding.