Twelve hours plus on an ambulance on a cold new year’s eve in Norfolk may not be everybody’s ideal way of seeing out the old year. But it was a chance to see how our ambulance service is performing under pressure.
After campaigning for more than two years for a better ambulance service for North Norfolk, I wanted to experience how the service is faring in the middle of winter, particularly with the rising demands on hospital A&Es.
I have nothing but praise for the crew of paramedics I went out with from their Cromer base. They were great, thoroughly professional during a busy, unpredictable shift. But what I discovered also shocked me.
Three things stand out:
– The much-reported pressures on A&E: late morning on new year’s eve there were 13 ambulances waiting outside the Norfolk & Norwich hospital; we were waiting for spaces in the corridor to leave patients on trolleys while patient assessments were done in the back of the ambulance. Later in the day the hospital declared a major internal incident as they tried to discharge patients to clear much-needed beds.
– While we were all waiting at the hospital, there were no ambulances available in north Norfolk. And when we left the hospital, we were diverted to a call in Norwich, and the crews told me this was the norm most days. Ambulances don’t always go back to base and it’s usual for the crew not to return to Cromer until the end of shift.
– Often the 111 service creates additional workload and often unnecessarily sends an ambulance on blues when it is not needed. Because 111 operators work to a prescribed crib sheet of questions asking questions like ‘is the patient alert?’ without being able to ask more probing questions, a ‘no’ response triggers an ambulance call out. Fortunately during my shift all of the calls we attended during the day on New Year’s Eve were for people in need of urgent medical help.
Last weekend the ambulance trust saw a 26% increase in calls compared to 2013 but it has had no extra funding. No wonder the service is under pressure. Staff on the frontline keep it going for all of us, covering miles and miles across Norfolk. Without them, heaven help us. You never know when you might need an ambulance.
Denise Burke, Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for North Norfolk and an Act on Ambulances campaigner.