Ambulance chief: We are improving on response times

Ambulance waiting times are improving, bosses say.
Ambulance waiting times are improving, bosses say.

Paramedic response times have improved in Lancashire since they hit rock bottom last year, ambulance service 
bosses have revealed.

The Gazette reported last month how ambulance chiefs had been summoned to County Hall to explain the service’s alarming fall-off in performance in some areas in 2014.

There have been particular concerns about a “postcode lottery” of response times on the Fylde coast, with more life-threatening call outs reached within target times in Blackpool than anywhere else in Lancashire – but vastly poorer performance in Wyre and Fylde.

Now service chiefs have claimed crews were beginning to win the battle to reach more life-threatening call-outs within an eight-minute target.

But Bob Williams, chief executive of the North West Ambulance Service, confessed that, despite the improvement, there was still plenty of work to be done.

An unprecedented spike in 999 calls in 2014, coupled with lengthy delays in handing over patients to over-stretched accident and emergency departments, saw a slump in response times across the North West.

Paramedics only managed to reach 69.2 per cent of the most serious “red one” calls, where lives were considered to be at risk, within the golden eight-minute limit.

That figure had risen to 81.5 per cent in April this year – an increase of more than 12 per cent.

In Lancashire the improving picture saw 76.7 per cent of “red” calls attended in the target time compared with 68.4 per cent in 2014.

The Gazette reported in May how, between April 2014 and March 2015, ambulance chiefs reached the highest priority Blackpool patients within the eight-minute target 85 per cent of the time – but the figures dropped to just 51 per cent in Wyre and Fylde.

All areas across Lancashire have recorded improved figures in this financial year so far, ambulance bosses said.

Mr Williams told members of the county council’s health scrutiny committee that red calls had risen by an unprecedented 10.5 per cent in 2014.

“It is very unusual to see that scale of sudden increase,” he said.

“What that meant was we had a pretty poor year from an ambulance service response point of view. We had hit our targets the previous two years, but we didn’t hit it last year, which was very poor.

“I’m not making any excuses, that’s what happened.”

Part of the problem, he said, was the delay in handing over patients to hospitals. The target time he said was 15 minutes from arriving at A&E to leaving.

“What I can say is that last year in Lancashire that was only done for about 56 per cent of the time, compared to 66 per cent across the North West.” Adding up the lost time waiting at hospitals beyond 15 minutes was, he said, equivalent to losing four paramedic crews every day. Talks were now going on with hospital bosses to try and reduce that.

Figures show that less than 10 per cent of 999 calls in the region were “even close to being life-threatening”.

The ambulance service in Lancashire dealt with more than 220,000 calls in 2014/15 – 92,603 of them red emergencies. Up to 17 per cent of all 999 activity were due to falls, with breathing problems the next most common and chest pains in third place.

But a union official has warned, while the figures show a lift in April, the improvement may not be sustainable in the long-term without considerably more investment in the service.

“The performance last year was terrible,” admitted Steve Rice, branch secretary for the GMB at North West Ambulance. “But that was down to demand and a lack of resources. Since then we’ve seen extra vehicles put on and staff doing more overtime. But it is unsustainable if the plan is to do it based on overtime.

“Burn-out is getting more common, the rate of staff leaving has almost doubled and there has been an increase in sickness, particularly stress.”

While the response figures have improved, the one thing that hasn’t is staff welfare - that’s gone worse.”