Express & Star

NHS crisis: Hundreds wait in ambulances outside West Midlands hospitals as beds full to capacity

Nearly 900 patients were forced to wait for longer than half an hour in ambulances at hospitals across the Black Country and Staffordshire in the week up to New Year's Eve, shocking figures have revealed.

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Ambulances wait outside Dudley's Russells Hall Hospital.

Of the 4,277 ambulances that attended A&E departments across the region in the period December 26-31, a total of 803 were stranded outside for over 30 minutes, while 90 were delayed for more than an hour.

At Dudley's Russells Hall Hospital one third of patients faced delays in excess of 30 minutes, while one quarter of people arriving at New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton had the same problem.

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NHS England's weekly operational update shows the true extent of the winter crisis that has hit the NHS, with ambulance delays reaching their highest levels of the year.

The figures also show that bed occupancy rates in our hospitals regularly exceeded 90 per cent over the period, exceeding the recommended 'safe' figure of 85 per cent.

All 489 of the beds Walsall Manor Hospital were full on five of the seven nights from December 25.

It was one of 12 hospitals in the country to be full to the brim on New Year's Eve.

It came as hospital bosses across the region pleaded with patients to stay away from bursting A&E departments and delayed operations in a bid to free up beds and frontline staff.

The Department of Health says ambulance crews should be able to hand patients over to A&E staff within 15 minutes of arrival at hospital.

It says that not doing so increases the risk to patients due to delays in diagnosis and treatment, as well as the chance that a patient will get worse while waiting on a trolley.

Across the country 16,893 patients endured ambulance delays of more than 30 minutes over the Christmas stretch – up from 11,852 the previous week to a record high for this winter.

The Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust saw 820 ambulances arrive, with 268 waiting for up to an hour and 33 for longer than an hour.

At The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust 228 of 905 ambulances that arrived met delays of between 30 minutes and an hour, while 28 were held up for longer than one hour.

The problems at New Cross Hospital were particularly acute on December 29, when 91 patients waited outside its packed A&E department in ambulances for longer than half an hour – almost two thirds of all patients arriving by ambulance.

University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHNMT), which runs Stafford County Hospital, saw 980 ambulances arrive over the period. A total of 172 were delayed by between 30 minutes and one hour, while 24 were held up for longer than an hour.

At Sandwell's City and General hospitals 56 patients were left waiting outside in ambulances were delayed by 30 minutes to one hour. 3 delayed longer than one hour.

The figures for Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust showed that 79 ambulances were delayed for between 30 minutes and an hour, while 13 were held up for longer than one hour.

The trust, which runs Walsall Manor Hospital, posted some of the highest figures in the country for bed occupancy rates from December 26-31, averaging at 99.9 per cent capacity.

Roseanne Crossey, the trust's head of business development and planning, said: "We are where we expected to be at this busy time of year.

"We have worked with our partners across the local health care economy to have our plans aligned to support this busy period.

"These include longer opening hours in GP surgeries; public information messages on staying well this winter, and choosing the appropriate service for health advice and treatment; improved integrated pathways with social care to help discharge patients more quickly; as well as our community services teams that help to keep patients safe and cared for at home or in the community.

"We have opened up additional capacity as we had planned to in order to meet the demand at this busy time of year."

At UHNMT, 99.3 per cent of 1,421 beds were full on December 28, with the average for the period hitting almost 98 per cent.

Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust hit 97.5 per cent capacity on December 27, with 577 of 592 beds full, while New Cross Hospital saw 90.8 per cent of its 732 beds filled on New Year's Eve.

The data also showed that non-emergency calls to the NHS hotline reached a record high.

Calls to the 111 service shot up 21 per cent on the previous week to 480,400 - the most received in a single week since it was created.

An NHS England spokesman said: "Hospitals, GPs, ambulances and other frontline NHS services have been extremely busy between Christmas and New Year, reporting higher levels of respiratory illness and some indications of increasing patient illness severity and flu.

"These increased pressures were mirrored in the NHS 111 service."

Chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Janet Davies said: "Today's figures show that almost every day last week, NHS hospitals in England were at bursting point, with over 90 per cent of beds being used.

"Lack of beds for new patients is a major factor contributing to the current severe pressure on the NHS, but it's impossible for trusts to open extra beds without more nurses to staff them.

"The RCN has been warning of under-investment in nursing posts for several years – now that underlying problem has developed into a full-blown crisis.

"There needs to be a fundamental review of the sort of health and social care we want in this country."

Tens of thousands of non-urgent operations and routine outpatient appointments have been shelved by NHS England to ease pressures on hospitals.