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Ambulances failing to reach the most seriously ill patients in time, ITV News investigation reveals

  • By Patrick Russell, Allegra Stratton and Jamie Roberton

Ambulances are failing to reach dying and critically ill patients fast enough with the system at breaking point, an ITV News investigation has found.

Paramedics are expected to reach the most serious emergencies - such as cardiac arrests or strokes - within eight minutes.

But our research has revealed that thousands of patients in England have had to endure delays well in excess of that target, with some forced to wait for several hours.

In the most severe cases of delays:

  • a patient with sepsis waited more than four hours
  • a patient suffering a stroke waited one hour and 26 minutes
  • an unconscious patient waited one hour and 14 minutes
  • a patient who took an overdose waited 47 minutes

A freedom of information request to ambulance trusts found that a total of 7,761 patients - all classed by 999 call handlers as "life-threatening" - waited more than 30 minutes.

This included 225 "Red 1" calls, the most critical cases where the patient is not breathing or doesn't have a pulse.

The figures, which cover the end of May until the start of August this year, reveal an ambulance service struggling to cope with demand amid growing concern that the health service is heading towards another major winter crisis.

One paramedic, speaking anonymously, spoke of the huge strain placed on emergency crews and the patients who rely on them.

He disclosed that he has witnessed four people die in front of him due to delays in reaching them.

"We all see it on a daily basis: people are dying in front of us," he said.

A paramedic has spoken of the strain on emergency crews and patients. Credit: PA Wire

Julien Hale blames the ambulance service for his son Martin's death in November 2016.

Martin Hale, 47, stopped breathing and collapsed at his home in Southampton.

Despite multiple frantic phone calls, it took paramedics 80 minutes to arrive.

Mr Hale was declared braindead by the time he reached hospital. His family took the decision to switch off his life support machine.

"If they were there on time, I am convinced he would be alive today," his father said.

"It is so sad. I know these people are under strain, under paid and I feel sorry for them but they let us down that day."

Describing the impact his son's death has had on his family, Mr Hale said: "It feels awful. It's got to the stage that when I drive my car and I hear an ambulance drive by, I find myself shouting to them, 'Why couldn't you do this for my son? Why couldn't you get there?' It has broken our family up."

In a statement, South Central Ambulance Service said: "The formal investigation into the Hale family's concerns has been concluded and the results have been shared with the family.

"We would like to take this opportunity to again apologise to the family for our delay and pass on our sincere condolences."

Martin Hale died after waiting 80 minutes for an ambulance.

Responding to our investigation, an NHS England spokesperson said: “The new response target times, currently being introduced, mean that ambulances are now expected to reach the most seriously ill patients in an average of seven minutes.

"The new targets will remove ‘hidden’ waits suffered by millions of patients, including reducing lengthy waits for the frail and elderly.

"These reforms mean that up to 750,000 calls a year that currently go into a queue will get an immediate response.”