Ex-ambulance worker says lives are at risk as system 'not fit for purpose'

  • Watch the former dispatcher discuss the pressures he saw the healthcare system face

A former ambulance worker has spoken out about patients waiting for more than 24 hours for paramedics to arrive, "horrendous" pressure on staff and a system which is "not fit for purpose".

The former dispatcher - who has asked to be kept anonymous - said by the time he left the job due to the pressure and strain he was under, it was an everyday occurrence for there to be no ambulances to send to people in need.

He said he believes lives are at risk, describing a "perfect storm" within the healthcare system.

He said Covid, high hospital admissions and issues with the NHS 111 service mean the service the public is getting is "not good".

He spoke of regularly seeing people in their 80s and 90s waiting for up to 10 hours and told ITV News West Country children are also often being left to wait.

"Some jobs I had on my screen were 24 hours old, if not more, by the time we got there," he said.

"It wasn’t a regular occurrence, depending on the category of the call, but certainly I had a number of falls for elderly people where it was 24 hours before we got there."

He described a "huge issue" with the NHS 111 service - which people are urged to use instead of arriving at hospital or calling 999.

He said the public are "doing the right thing" by using it, but described it as "not fit for purpose".

The former dispatcher told ITV News the 111 service will tell patients an ambulance should arrive within 18 minutes but that "doesn't happen" due to a lack of available crews, prompting anger and frustration from patients and their loved-ones.

He also said he believes 111 are "not dealing with people in the right way", adding: "I think a lot of the time, not all of the time but a lot of the time, there could be alternative pathways for them to consider rather than call an ambulance.

Ambulances queue outside the BRI. Credit: BPM Media/Bristol Live

“Members of the public are doing the right thing - they are using the 111 system rather than the 999 system - but it’s not bypassing the fact that they then need an ambulance."

Ambulances which do get to patients then face long waits to hand people over to hospital staff.

The man said ambulances can be left queueing for up to eight hours due to a lack of hospital beds - causing a backlog of other calls to attend.

He said: "They’re queueing there for six, seven, eight hours sometimes.

"The jobs keep coming in, people still require ambulances. The jobs stack up and we’ve got no-one to send, so clearly the response and the service we’re providing to the public is not good."

He stressed the issues are not the fault of the ambulance service, which is experiencing its longest-ever period of sustained pressure.

'It's a perfect storm at the moment'

"It’s very difficult to blame the ambulance service," he said. "It’s a perfect storm at the moment.

"You’ve got hospitals which are inundated and stretched to the limit, you’ve got ambulance crews going into the hospitals that can’t unload... so as a result you’ve got no ambulances to send to people."

He said staff are going off sick with stress while others are working hours and hours of overtime each week.

"They are expecting far more from call takers and dispatchers than they could deliver," he said.

"The whole call taker and dispatcher area of the business is being run on overtime. If people didn’t take up the overtime, it would collapse.

Ambulances have frequently been seen queuing outside ED at Derriford Hospital.

"That then puts pressure on those individuals because they’re working very, very long hours every week."

He added: "It was just horrendous. The work placed on us was far higher than it should be.

“It’s not fit for purpose and it’s not sustainable.”

What the ambulance service has said?

A spokesperson from South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust said it is experiencing its highest-ever level of sustained demand.

They added: “Our response times are directly affected by the time it takes us to handover patients into busy hospital emergency departments which is longer than we have ever seen before."

They confirmed they are losing "many more hours" compared with recent years to ambulances queueing at hospitals which means they are unable to respond to other patients and this has an "inevitable impact" on the service it provides.

"We are sorry that this means people are waiting longer than we would expect," they added.

“This is a something which requires a health system wide solution and it is an absolute priority for us and our NHS partners to reduce these delays, so we can be there for our patients, while prioritising those who are most seriously injured and ill."

They also thanked staff for their "commitment, focus and compassion" during what they described as a "very difficult time".

They added: "The welfare and wellbeing of our staff is a top priority, especially during extra high demand which we know creates extra workload and pressure on people. We have increased access to practical help and support for anyone at this time.

“Extra resources have been allocated to meet the increased demand for our services and we are constantly review this evolving situation.

“Patients who need urgent medical help or advice are encouraged to visit or to call 111, which is free and available 24/7. This will ensure they get the right care and the ambulance service can focus on those most in need.

“For on-going or non-urgent medical concerns or if they need medicines, people should contact their local GP surgery or a local pharmacy.”

A spokesperson for NHS England and NHS Improvement told ITV News they are ensuring all people needing an ambulance are informed of any delays.

“As a South West region the 111 service is performing above the national average in answering callers who are able to speak to a clinician", they said.

"Our integrated urgent care teams, working alongside South Western Ambulance Service and partners are making sure that people who need an ambulance are informed if there is a delay and alternative health care steps offered that they could take.”