17 August 2022: Ambulance Domesday in West Midlands

If you live in the West Midlands and are going to fall ill, you better get on with it. Certainly, don’t leave it until 17 August because if you want an ambulance, you may not get one. That’s the apocalyptic prediction from a director of the West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS).

Ambulance provision in the West Midlands, as in many other areas of the country, has been struggling for a couple of years. There are endless stories of delays in ambulances reaching patients. Handover delays from ambulance paramedics at the county’s two hospitals, both maintained by the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Hospital Trust (SaTH), are among the longest in England. There are far too many reports of patients dying during these delays when they might have survived. Too many patients with worse health outcomes because they could not get to specialist treatment quickly enough.

Mark Docherty, Executive Director of Nursing and Clinical Commissioning at WMAS, this week told the media and the board members of the ambulance service that the whole West Midlands ambulance service could fail by mid-August.

Yesterday, Mark Docherty told the Health Service Journal (£) WMAS could face a ‘Titanic moment’ and collapse entirely this summer if the region’s worsening problems with hospital handover delays are not taken more seriously:

“Around 17 August is the day I think it will all fail. That date is when a third of our resource will be lost to delays, and that will mean we just can’t respond. Mathematically it will be a bit like a Titanic moment.”

Mr Docherty told the WMAS Trust yesterday:

“I spent most of the last two weeks visiting families where we caused harm. I can’t carry on doing that, and I am not willing too. Someone, somewhere has got to stop this happening. We cannot carry on as an NHS causing patients harm. Some die. I can’t carry on trying to explain something that is avoidable. This is the biggest problem facing the NHS right now. Last April we reported two serious incidents but this April we reported 23.

We are not even measuring the impact on those patients getting delayed care for heart attacks and strokes, this is reducing life expectancy and recovery rates.

Patients are dying every day that shouldn’t be dying every day. Their deaths are entirely predictable, and of a scale that means we need to be taking this really seriously.”

National Health England has allocated an extra £130m to the ten ambulance trusts this year. But it hasn’t come up with any solutions to the problem of getting patients through the door of A&E, triaged, treated and discharged.

In Shropshire, SaTH is at the heart of the problem. It has been in special measures since 2018. Many staff are demoralised. Recruitment of specialists, including in A&E, has long been difficult. Situated in a county with a struggling care system it is not only failing to admit patients quickly enough, it is also failing to discharge them in a timely fashion. The grandiose Future Fit scheme which aimed to modernise the hospital system across our county has not achieved anything nearly nine years of deliberation and an expenditure of many millions. The result is a system that can’t cope with the demands it faces.

WMAS doesn’t have enough money and enough ambulances. It has also made strategic errors in closing local ambulance bases and basing all ambulances in Shrewsbury or Telford. That means that when ambulance crews get a break, which admittedly is rare these days, they are parked up at least half an hour from Ludlow driving at blue light speed.

Helen Morgan, MP for North Shropshire, has called for a full enquiry into ambulance delays. But Conservative councillors in Shropshire don’t want to do anything. A motion for a broad ranging inquiry into the ambulance crisis was kicked into touch by Conservative councillors last month when they voted for a task and finish group which has yet to be established. Don’t they know that the clock is ticking down to a crisis? That 17 August is the predicted Domesday?

Our emergency health system is approaching paralysis. We now have a prediction on the date on when that might happen. The date might be wrong but it shows that we only have weeks to solve this crisis. Despite Mark Docherty’s pleas, there looks like there be a long delay before this crisis will be eased, let alone solved. That means more ambulance delays. More people’s health being harmed and, sadly, more deaths.

This is not just a Shropshire problem. Ambulance delays are endemic in an NHS that is creaking at the seams. Despite heroic efforts by NHS staff, no one in government seems to have a grip on how to stave off the looming Domesday.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.