NHS ambulance crisis: life-threatening emergency calls rise 15% in one year as workers struggle to meet demand

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The analysis comes as ambulance services in England continue to work under acute pressure in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ambulance crews in England are responding to more life-threatening call-outs than in previous years, including during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, NationalWorld can reveal.

The latest figures published by NHS England show ambulance crews responded to 78,000 category 1 (C1) incidents in May.

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That is almost 10,000, or 15%, more than during the same month last year when 68,000 C1 incidents were recorded. The latest figures for C1 incidents are the sixth highest on record for any month and the highest for May since current records began in August 2017.

Life-threatening incidents such as a cardiac arrest fall under C1 and represent the most serious of call-outs. Less immediate incidents fall into categories two (emergency), three (urgent) and four (less urgent).

The proportion of total incidents falling under C1 has also been increasing, with such calls making up  13% of all emergency call-outs in May.


On average 10% of incidents since 2017 have been related to life threatening incidents but over the last 12 months the proportion has remained at 12% or above, peaking at 14% in December 2021, March 2022 and April 2022.

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The number of all other types of incident except life threatening ones fell in May year-on-year, with the number of call-outs overall down 12% – suggesting ambulance dispatchers are increasingly more likely to categorise calls as life-threatening.

NationalWorld approached NHS England, The King’s Fund, The College of Paramedics and The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives to ask what could be driving both the increased number of life-threatening call-outs, and the increase in the proportion of overall call-outs that are C1.

All either did not respond, or did not speculate on the reason.


The analysis comes as ambulance services continue to work under acute pressure in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and its knock on effects on the nation’s health and healthcare system.

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In May we revealed how ambulance services across England were failing to hit crucial response time targets with the latest figures showing dangerously long waits.


How long are people waiting for ambulances?

Response times for the most serious of incidents were also hitting new highs with patients waiting dangerously long times for emergency care.

The average response time in May 2022 for a C1 incident was eight minutes 36 seconds – one minute greater than in May last year when ambulance crews took an average of seven minutes 25 seconds to respond to a C1 incident.

NHS England has an eight minute target for ambulances to reach patients in C1 situations.

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Why are ambulance crews responding to more life-threatening call-outs?

NationalWorld asked NHS England why C1 incidents were on the increase and what impact this was having on ambulance services but it refused to provide a comment.

However, Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at health think-tank the Nuffield Trust, said: “Ambulance services are already struggling to meet the number of call-outs for the most serious and life-threatening emergencies, such as cardiac arrest, as quickly as they should be. Longer waits for an ambulance can have severe consequences and put patients at significant risk.

“Urgent and emergency care has always been the safety net of our health and care system, but the impact of the pandemic, chronic workforce shortages, along with the longer-term rise in the numbers of people with severe illnesses are now really affecting care for those in the most urgent need.”

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