How long a person waits for an ambulance can be the difference between life and death. Sometimes it doesn't make a difference: it might be upsetting, stressful or painful but it doesn't cause harm to the patient. That's why there are target response times for different categories of an emergency call. For the lowest category, where time isn't of the essence, the patient can wait. For higher categories, the response time can make a real difference, so target times are agreed for everyone to work to. For example, the target response time for a category two emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke, is 18 minutes. But in May this year, the average was almost 40 minutes.

Waiting 40 minutes compared to 18 minutes for emergency care to start is going to make a difference to some people. Thankfully some patients will respond well to the excellent care they receive from the paramedics and later the hospital, leaving no lasting damage. However, there are instances of people dying and having lifelong consequences from the wait. I know this from personal experience helping our clients with clinical negligence claims. 

The BBC has reported on the inquest into the death of Kenneth Shadbolt who waited more than five hours for an ambulance and died. He phoned 999 multiple times. No doubt the call handlers desperately wanted to help but the systems, with high demand and bed-blocking at the hospital, were the fatal obstacle. Logs show that in his final 999 call he asked: "Can you please tell them to hurry up or I shall be dead".

The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch has been investigating how the long waits are delaying 999 emergency response times across England. Their conclusion is that delays are causing harm to patients, including some deaths. 

The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch's interim findings also recognise the harm suffered by devoted staff desperately trying to help but prevented by the failures in the system. These staff are traumatised by the harm to patients and their families, which they are witnessing day in day out.

If you or your loved one have been affected by the issues in this article, my colleagues and I are happy to talk with you about what happened and how we might be able to help. All conversations are, of course, on a no-obligation basis.