Royal College of Emergency Medicine Menu Menu

One in four ambulances delayed 30 minutes or more, as Urgent and Emergency Care falls deeper into crisis

31 March 2022

The latest Winter Sitrep data for the week ending 27 March show:

  • There were 79,588 ambulance arrivals, 2.7% less than the previous week.
  • More than one quarter of ambulances experienced delays of 30 minutes or more, equal to 21,051 ambulances
    • This is an increase of 7.4% on the previous week
    • This is the highest proportion of ambulance delays on record
  • More than one in nine ambulances were delayed by more than 60 minutes, a 10.2% increase on the previous week, setting a new record high for this reporting period.
  • The average number of delays for this winter has continued to creep up, increasing from 0.3% up to 21.3%. The previous highest weekly average number of delays was 14.3% in 2019-20.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine and The College of Paramedics have collaborated on this Ambulance Handover Options Appraisal guidance that details the ways in which Paramedics and Emergency Medicine staff can reduce ambulance handover delays.

Dr Ian Higginson, Vice President of The Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said:

“The data show Emergency Department crowding, long “hidden” within the walls of EDs, has become more visible as handover delays have dramatically increased, leading to ambulances waiting outside EDs with their patients still inside.

“It is vital that ambulances return to active service whenever possible and safe to do so. Delaying ambulance handovers should be a last resort. Holding patients in ambulances leads to unnecessary delays to their care, leaving seriously ill or injured patients in the community requiring an ambulance to wait longer.

“Ambulance handover delays are almost entirely caused by dangerous crowding in Emergency Departments. The root cause of these problems is “exit block” where there are delays for patients to be admitted to inpatient beds from the ED. Patients suffer harm or die unnecessarily when they cannot get an ambulance in time, when they are held in ambulances on arrival in ED, or when they are treated in crowded EDs.

“Emergency Departments must have sufficient capacity to meet demand, and constant flow from the Emergency Department into inpatient beds, otherwise they will not be able to keep patients and staff safe. This means that risk must be properly shared within organisations, and through systems.

“When this does not happen leadership teams tend to look for mitigation. Unfortunately, this mitigation is usually focused at the front door of the hospital, rather than being directed at the root cause of the problem. The Royal College and The College of Paramedics have produced this joint guidance to support good decision making when managing ambulance handover delays in an effort to tackle ambulance handover delays and dangerous Emergency Department crowding.”

Tracy Nicholls, Chief Executive of The College of Paramedics, said:

“We hear from our members how consistently challenging this situation is and, whilst we can see that paramedics, ambulance clinicians and hospital ambulance liaison officers are doing everything they can, the system is now at breaking point.

“Those who need an ambulance are continuing to wait an unacceptable length of time and those paramedics and ambulance clinicians who are running to their next job can clearly see how long their next patient has been waiting and know they are going to be met with frustration, anxiety or fear.

“It seems incongruous that additional measures are being taken at the front door when the whole system flow of patients still needs to be addressed, but we suspect that there are now few options left without further risk to both those who are using the ambulance services and those who are working within them.

“Ambulance operations centres are still fielding calls at record numbers because callers want to know when an ambulance will arrive and are often calling back time and time again. It is difficult to hear that an ambulance might be delayed but imagine how a caller feels when their 999 call isn’t answered straight away. The moral injury is not just with the paramedics, but also with all of those involved directly with patients and their care.

“The College supports RCEM’s call for both the reduction in ambulance handover delays and in ED overcrowding.  It is only by working together as a system that we will see this much-needed change and this guidance document outlines the risks associated with the current challenges.”

Back to top Back to top