Undercover Ambulance: NHS in Chaos review – a lethal lottery seen through horrified eyes

An emergency medical worker spent months secretly filming his harrowing existence for this heartrending documentary about our broken health service. How much more can we take?

If you have ever had to call an ambulance for a family member, you will recall the wave of grateful relief you felt when it arrived and the paramedics strode in, skilled, confident and disarmingly upbeat. At that moment, you might not have known whether your loved one would be OK, but you did believe they would receive world-class care. Their chances were now the best they could be – and you dialled 999 only a few minutes ago.

At least, that is how it used to go. But we live in a country where that lifebelt is no longer within reach. If you have called 999 in the past couple of years, you have played a lethal lottery, captured vividly by the Dispatches investigation Undercover Ambulance: NHS in Chaos.

The footage comes from Daniel Waterhouse, an emergency medical technician who wore a body-mounted camera during his shifts in north-west London for three months this winter, filming every crumbling layer of a system that is close to total destruction.

We have all read articles about the plight of the NHS. Perhaps you have seen TV news reports, too, although there have been too few of both. The superb BBC series Ambulance has had health service underfunding – and the knock-on effects of degraded social care and mental health provision – as its underlying theme for years. But there is a special, awful power in seeing it directly, through the horrified eyes of a medic at work.

The programme begins with what has become a regular experience for Waterhouse. He has picked up a gravely ill octogenarian, so he issues a “pre-alert” – he phones ahead to reserve a bed in the hospital’s resuscitation room. But when he arrives, the beds are full and no doctor is free to help. The patient faces a potentially fatal delay.

Waterhouse routinely ends up in corridors full of people waiting to be checked in, with patients who are not at immediate risk of death, but are not fit to queue by themselves. So he stays with them, stuck for hours waiting to hand them over, as new calls come in over the radio and have to be ignored. A survey conducted by the trade union GMB and shared with Dispatches says that more than half of ambulance workers report having lost entire shifts to these handover backlogs.

Each one of these unanswered calls is a person in dire distress being made to wait, and wait, and wait. These are the programme’s most harrowing scenes. At 5.30am one bitterly cold night, Waterhouse and a colleague approach the home of an elderly woman who pressed the emergency alarm around their neck at 1am. The medics are commenting on the ice on the ground around them when conversation gives way to exclamation: “Jesus!” “Oh my God!”

They have spotted the woman, who has had a fall. But she has fallen outside. She has been prone on frozen concrete for more than four hours. It is a miracle that she is alive.

Not everyone is so lucky. Alongside Waterhouse’s reporting, the programme hears from bereaved people around the country. In Essex, a man whose father died of a stroke wonders, while placing no blame on frontline staff, whether the outcome would have been different had an ambulance arrived sooner. In Birmingham, we meet the partner of Hannah, a 36-year-old mother of four with cystic fibrosis, who finally received antibiotics for pneumonia when it was just too late.

In Liverpool, a young man recalls how his father faded as they waited and waited in their living room for help after his old man had what they could see was a heart attack. His dad eventually made it into an ambulance, but died soon after. The shot of the son outside Anfield, where he will now watch football on his own, is devastating.

The programme is almost all straight reportage, but it deploys expert testimony and statistics to contextualise the footage and confirm the scarcely comprehensible scale of the problem. According to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, for example, delays at emergency departments cost about 400 lives a week in 2022. Undercover Ambulance could be a series. It could be a nightly programme, seven days a week for months on end, recounting tragedy after tragedy, all of which need not have happened and will for ever haunt those left behind.

No one could stand to watch it for more than a couple of episodes, though. Waterhouse won’t face the consequences at work that whistleblowers in any industry are likely to suffer: the programme ends with him tendering his resignation because, like so many NHS staff, he cannot stand what his job has become. Watching Undercover Ambulance, one wonders how much more the British public will tolerate.

Undercover Ambulance: NHS in Chaos aired on Channel 4 and is now on All 4.


Jack Seale

The GuardianTramp

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