Ambulance wait figures outside hospitals in England highest for five years

More than 150,000 people waited in ambulances for at least half an hour this winter to date

Record numbers of patients had to wait in the back of an ambulance outside A&E units in England this winter when hospitals came under pressure during the Omicron surge, NHS figures show.

A total of 151,798 patients were delayed for at least half an hour with ambulance crews because emergency departments were too busy to admit them, according to NHS England data.

That was 14% more than the previous highest total for the number of patients forced to wait during the first nine weeks of the winter, which was 133,000 in that position at that stage in 2019-20.

NHS England figures published on Thursday show that one in five patients have waited 30 minutes or more in ambulances before being admitted since the start of December. The absolute figure – 151,798 – exceeds the previous highest level in recent years – 133,000 at the same stage of winter 2019-20 – by 14%.

The number of ambulances that have had to wait 60 minutes so far this winter before offloading patients has also hit a record high – 60,687, up 82% compared with the past two winters.

“Going to A&E can be frightening. To then be stuck in an ambulance unable to get immediate medical help once you get there must add to the trauma of an emergency visit,” said Rachel Power, the chief executive of the Patients Association. “These terrible figures show how the pressures on the NHS affect the care and treatment of individual patients.”


Ministers needed to put more money into social care to make it easier for hospitals to discharge patients who were medically fit to leave, and thus relieve the pressure on A&Es, Power added.

The proportion of people waiting is also higher than in previous winters: whereas between 3% and 4% of patients waited an hour or more in the previous four winters, that figure stands at 8% this winter to date, or one in every 12 patients.

“Having to wait outside in an ambulance because A&E is already dangerously overcrowded is distressing, not just for patients but also for staff, who can’t provide proper care,” said Patricia Marquis, the Royal College of Nursing’s England director.

Some patients die in the back of ambulances, and others after they are admitted, directly as a result of the delay in starting treatment, the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives warned in a report in November.

Saffron Cordery, of the hospitals group NHS Providers, said the high number of delayed handovers showed that “safety risk is being borne increasingly by ambulance services”. Vehicles trapped outside A&E were a key reason why response times to 999 calls were so slow, even for people who were seriously unwell, she added.

Separate NHS figures showed that staff absences were down slightly compared with the previous week, but remained high, with 70,000 workers off sick across England on an average day. The number of NHS staff off due to Covid reasons also dipped slightly to about 26,000, representing more than a third of total absences.

NHS England’s national medical director, Prof Stephen Powis, said that despite 70,000 personnel being off sick every day last week, “hard-working staff are doing everything possible to get people home to their loved ones and out of hospital safely, as hundreds more beds were freed up each day compared to the week before, all while delivering as many routine checks and procedures as possible, including vital diagnostic checks, as staff continue to make inroads delivering treatments disrupted by Covid.”


Pamela Duncan and Denis Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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