Wwaiting, and waiting, and waiting. For an appointment with the GP, a routine exam, a vaccination. To see a doctor at A&E, or to have an ambulance take you there. Waiting for a referral appointment, for the community nurse to arrive, for a care worker to call. The NHS waiting list seems endless. And all our leaders seem to do is tell us that we must do everything possible so that the health service is not overwhelmed.
As a paramedic with more than 20 years in the ambulance service, I know that we are not the only ones crying: “We are overwhelmed.” For the past three nights I have been working the 7:00 pm to 7:00 am shift. Every night, I have come to work with a list of over 160 pending 999 calls. There are more than 160 people waiting for an ambulance. Some have been waiting for more than 12 hours; some will have life-changing or life-threatening conditions.
Six hours after a recent shift, I cared for an elderly woman who had fallen seven hours earlier. He had broken hip and wrist, and bruises on his face. Furthermore, he had suffered the indignity of being incontinent. But there is nothing new in this: in fact, stories like hers are an everyday occurrence.
How long should we wait for the situation to improve? The NHS and its patients need support. The ambulance service has been failing for years. Although Covid has shed a bright light on this, it alone did not create these problems. There are multiple reasons for failure.
It is clear that we cannot blame the crews for these problems. Paramedics and call men go to 12-hour shifts knowing that they are unlikely to feel they have really made a difference. For the past three nights, my colleagues told me about a 28-year-old man with groin pain and a woman who had eaten a muffin, passed its expiration date, and was now experiencing some upset stomach. Why did they take precedence over the woman on the floor? Why don’t these patients go to the hospital on their own?
Is it because our management does not have the courage to say no to anyone? The frustrating result is that we disappoint the patients who need us most. Patients die while waiting for us to handle the outdated muffin case.
In the south of England, many local ambulance stations have closed to make way for ‘super centers’. So why do people keep waiting? Local ambulance stations served local communities; now, with super stations, ambulances have to travel 30 minutes or more to reach people. The idea is that the largest cities, which have the highest call volumes, hit the target times in those areas. But the upshot is that patients in smaller communities, who don’t seem to matter as much, are left waiting.
Another fault is the system followed when answering a call to 999; how calls and concerns from the public are prioritized and routed to front-line personnel. Among call operators, it’s called “putting out fires,” which is fun because if you leave a fire waiting, there is often nothing left to put out and it goes out on its own. It may seem that this is all part of a grand plan to eventually privatize the ambulance service.
I am deeply sorry for all the people who had to wait for us to come when they needed us, for those families who had a loved one died while waiting, and for those who will have to wait in the future. Frontline ambulance teams want our management to manage and take responsibility for their actions. We want more funding to clear the waiting lists and make sure we can help those who need it most. Unless the waiting list ends, the ambulance service, like a fire, will continue to operate until it is shut down.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism