Huge demand on 999 ambulance calls 'is new normal'

The unprecedented demand on the region's ambulance service needs to be treated as "the new normal" and dealt with appropriately, its chief executive has said.

Professor Anthony Marsh, chief executive of the West Midlands Ambulance Service, has pledged to do more to help with the surge in 999 calls and ambulance handovers
Professor Anthony Marsh, chief executive of the West Midlands Ambulance Service, has pledged to do more to help with the surge in 999 calls and ambulance handovers

Professor Anthony Marsh, chief executive of West Midlands Ambulance Service, has pledged to do everything possible to help his staff as they deal with record-breaking levels of 999 calls and long delays at A&E departments.

He told a the trust's annual general meeting that extra funding and staff - from call handlers to paramedics - should lead to an improvement within weeks.

Last week was the service's busiest week ever with a total of 40,839 calls - a 57.9 per cent increase on the same week in 2019, before the pandemic.

Demand for emergency attention has been rising throughout the summer, with the record for the daily number of 999 calls to WMAS broken twice in two weeks at the start of the month.

However Professor Marsh said the current surge in 999 calls was likely to be the new normal and not just a surge due to the European Championships and the hot weather as he laid out plans to tackle the issues.

He said: "Firstly, we will be working to ensure we have sufficient capacity to answer and respond to 999 calls through more call handlers, more staff, more paramedics and more ambulance crews.

"As part of that approach, we will be looking to help those patients who can be treated over the phone by paramedics and nurses taking calls and helping give advice for the patients to be safely treated at home.

"While this won't completely solve the ongoing ambulance handover issue, it will speed it up, as will putting extra measures in place with cohorting areas and supporting hospitals to be able to speed up the handover.

"This will include extra funding going into the aggregate services and the NHS and emergency departments, so we will hopefully see an improvement in the next couple of weeks."

Professor Marsh said he shared the frustration of his frontline crews in having to wait to drop off patients at hospitals but said all NHS staff were working hard to cope with demand.

However he pointed out that the conveyance rates for the West Midlands service as among the best in the country.

He said: "The emergency departments are under enormous pressure, despite the best efforts of all in our emergency departments and everyone working flat out on 111, 999, primary care and our emergency departments.

"Unfortunately, many more ambulances are now being held outside of hospital, sometimes for substantial periods of time, unable to unload due to the emergency department being full.

"I absolutely recognise and share the frustrations of our frontline staff as they are having to spend a disproportionate amount of time responding to calls and waiting to help people."

A report presented to the governing trust said that, if trends continue, the equivalent of 46 ambulances could be off the roads due to the length of time crews are having to wait to pass patients to hospitals. Handovers longer 30 minutes have already totalled just under 24,374 hours across the whole West Midlands region so far this year.

Professor Marsh said he, chairman Professor Ian Cumming and the directors would do everything they can to engage with colleagues and reduce the delays.

Members of the public have been urged to call 111 rather 999 unless the situation is a genuine emergency in order to reduce demand.

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