NHS crisis: ambulance response times and A&E waits in England hit record levels

Ambulance delays, A&E waiting times and hospital bed-blocking have all hit record highs in the current NHS crisis in England.

The NHS crisis has reached new depths, with record waits for ambulances and hospital wards fuller than ever.

Pressures are mounting up on many aspects of England’s healthcare system, the figures released by NHS England show. Waits in Accident and Emergency departments also reached a new high, with just 65% of patients being seen within four hours in December, far lower than the 95% target.

The number of people waiting more than 12 hours in A&E departments to be admitted has risen above 50,000 for the first time.

Hospital bed-blocking has also hit a record high, with an average of 14,069 patients fit to leave hospital but unable to do so last week, up 10% on the week before. But there were some glimmers of hope - the NHS waiting list has fallen for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at the King’s Fund, said there was “no shying away from the reality that the NHS is deep in crisis”, adding: “Since modern records began, A&E performance is the worst it has ever been and not a single NHS trust in the country is managing to meet the national target to be seen within four hours.

“While there are huge delays in admitting patients, there are also serious issues in discharging patients – with over 13,000 people stuck in hospital despite being medically fit to leave.

“Meanwhile, the waiting list for planned hospital care remains stubbornly over seven million and cancer services are also under pressure, which underlines the challenge in meeting the Government’s latest pledge to reduce waiting lists by the end of 2023.”

Ambulance delays and A&E waiting times in England are at record levels. Credit: Kim Mogg

Ambulance waits for the most urgent incidents also hit a record high, the new monthly figures show. Response times to the most critical incidents, such as heart attacks, reached 10 minutes 57 seconds in December. This was far longer than the seven minute target and easily the longest since the incident categories were introduced in 2017.

While almost one in five ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be handed to A&E teams last week, this was down from the record 26% the previous week.

Across England, response times were the worst on record in all four categories of severity. Every one of the country’s 11 ambulance trusts failed to meet targets for getting to the most severely ill patients. Demand on the ambulance service also reached record levels, with December seeing the highest number of 999 calls answered since 2017.

A queue of ambulances are seen outside the Royal London Hospital emergency department on November 24, 2022. That week, nearly three in 10 ambulances were queuing outside hospitals in England.

While hospitals are at potentially dangerously busy levels - bed occupancy last week was the highest ever recorded.

NHS England’s national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said the figures showed how hard staff were working in the face of “extreme pressure”.

He added: “As staff responded to record A&E attendances, 999 calls and emergency ambulance callouts as the ‘twindemic’ led to unprecedented levels of respiratory illness in hospital, they also continued to deliver for patients, with more people than ever before receiving diagnostic tests and cancer treatment.

“These figures show just how hard our staff are working, not only in the face of extreme pressure but also in bringing down the Covid backlogs and checking more people for cancer than ever before in one month.

“The NHS will keep its foot on the accelerator to continue to make progress on the Covid backlog and hospitals have today been asked to ensure anyone waiting longer than 18 months has their treatment booked in before March.

“While services continue to be pressured, it’s important the public continue to play their part by using the best services for their care – using 999 in an emergency and otherwise using 111 online and by getting their vaccinations if eligible.”

Wes Streeting, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care speaks to the media on day three of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool ACC on September 27, 2022 in Liverpool, England (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

While Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: “The NHS is in the biggest crisis in its history. The terrifying truth is that patients in an emergency can no longer be sure the NHS will be there for them.

“Heart attack and stroke victims are routinely waiting over three hours for an ambulance, when every second counts. 24 hours in A&E is not just a TV programme, it is the grim reality for too many patients. Too many lives are being lost as a result.

“After 13 years of Conservative mismanagement of the NHS, expecting them to fix this crisis is like asking the arsonist to put out the fire they started - it is not going to happen.

“Labour will provide the biggest expansion of NHS staff in history to treat patients on time, and reform the health service to make it fit for the future. We will train 7,500 more doctors a year, 10,000 more nurses and midwives every year, double the number of district nurses qualifying, and 5,000 more health visitors, paid for by abolishing the non-dom tax status.”