Some ambulance services around the country are struggling to meet public demand after their busiest week in 10 years.
The situation is so bad that the national director for the ambulance service Peter Bradley has appealed to the public to avoid dialling 999 unless absolutely necessary to try and ease pressure on the service.
In London, the ambulance service had the busiest week in its history in the week up to December 14, as staff responded to 20, 939 emergency incidents across the capital – an increase of nearly 8% on the average of the previous four weeks.
Mr Bradley, being interviewed in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, said the situation was due to a very cold start to winter, which caused a sharp increase in falls and breathing problems, combined with outbreaks of flu and the winter vomiting bug norovirus.
“It has been the most difficult 10 days I have seen in the last 10 years. It is absolutely horrendous,” he told the newspaper.
“Hospitals are full and A&E departments are struggling. We have ambulances having to wait longer to offload patients and that is causing difficulties.
“The message is that the public really need to do their best to avoid using A&E and ambulance services unless it is a genuine emergency. Use walk-in centres, NHS Direct and pharmacies because the relentless increase in activity will not ease for the next few weeks.”
In London, high demand is thought to have been compounded by high percentages of calls initially treated as being Category A (immediately life threatening), and delays caused to staff at hospitals while waiting to hand over patients.
As a result of these ongoing issues, the service raised the declared pressure level at which it is operating from ‘severe pressure’ to ‘critical’ – the first time that it has reached this level since the capacity levels were introduced in late 2005.
London’s director of operations Martin Flaherty said: “We are coming under increasing pressure in the run up to what was already set to be one of our busiest times of the year.
“We are working closely with NHS London, PCTs, and hospitals to resolve issues around delays we have been experiencing in a number of areas while waiting to be able to hand patients into the care of hospital staff.”
The North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) is also experiencing unprecedented levels of 999 activity.
NWAS chief executive, John Burnside said: “The winter period is always a busy time for the NHS and the ambulance service in particular, with a significant increase in calls over this period. However, this year, we are experiencing extremely high levels of 999 calls compared with the same time last year.
“The service has increased its resource levels to prepare for the winter period and our staff are working extremely hard. In this busy period, we will continue to work hard to serve our patients as quickly and safely possible.”