Shocking figures have unveiled the local areas in England with the longest ambulance delays, revealing a stark "postcode lottery" for response times to life-threatening calls.
Potential heart attack and stroke victims in the worst hit areas are now waiting an average of one hour and 40 minutes for paramedics to arrive.
The figures, uncovered by the Liberal Democrats through Freedom of Information requests, reveal how patients whose lives are in immediate danger are waiting three times longer in some rural areas than urban ones. In Mid Devon patients waited an average of 15 minutes and 20 seconds minutes for Category 1 calls, the longest in the country, compared to 5 minutes and 48 seconds in Hammersmith.
Figures were provided by all ten ambulance trusts in England, revealing local figures on response times that aren't published in the regular region-wide data. The research covers 227 local areas in England, showing the worsening picture across the country.
Of these, all but two are failing to reach the 18-minute target for Category 2 calls which can include heart attack and stroke victims, while 83% of areas missed the 7 minute target for the most serious Category 1 calls. Not one area in England achieved the target for both Category 1 and 2 calls.
In 32 local areas, average waits for Category 2 calls which can include heart attack or stroke victims have more than doubled in the past two years. In Cornwall, the average Category 2 wait has more than tripled to one hour and 41 minutes, up from 32 minutes two years ago.
The Liberal Democrats are calling for an urgent five point plan to support ambulance services this winter. As part of this the party is calling for a long-term strategy to improve social care, free up hospital beds and stop ambulances waiting outside hospitals.
Ambulance Crisis - Liberal Democrat 5 Point Winter Plan
Launch a campaign to retain, recruit and train paramedics and other ambulance service staff. Like all health and care services, it needs to be properly staffed.
Bring forward a fully funded programme to get people who are medically well enough discharged from hospital and set up with appropriate social care and support. This will allow people to leave hospital sooner and make more space available for new arrivals. The Government's current attempt at this through the Adult Social Care Discharge Fund is not good enough, as the funds will come from existing NHS budgets putting even more pressure on other services. It will also not be deployed in full until January next year.
In addition to getting people out of hospital so that they get care in a more comfortable setting, the number of beds in hospitals needs to be increased to end excessive handover delays for ambulances, caused by a lack of bed capacity. Any new beds must come with increases in staff to care for those extra patients.
Expand mental health support services to get people the appropriate care they need and reduce the number of call outs for ambulances for mental health reasons. Learning from hospitals that have set up 'emergency mental health departments', will not only to get people more appropriate care but relieve pressure on A&Es and ambulances.
Pass Daisy Cooper MP's Ambulance Waiting Times Bill into law that would require accessible, localised reports of ambulance response times to be published. This would ensure that 'hot spots' with some of the longest waiting times can be identified routinely. 12 hour waits at A&E should also be published from arrival at hospital rather than the 'decision to admit' as is current practice, so that the true scale of the problem is clear for all to see.
Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson Daisy Cooper said:
"These heart-breaking figures show that in every corner of the country, targets are being missed and patients are being left waiting far too long for an ambulance to arrive.
"This stark postcode lottery means that if you suffer a heart attack or stroke, your chances of getting to hospital on time depend on where you happen to live.
"Every day we hear more and more devastating stories of pensioners left stranded for hours, or families watching a loved one die before a paramedic could reach them. Our overstretched local NHS services are collapsing under the strain of years of neglect under this Conservative government.
"Ministers must bring forward extra support to get ambulance services through winter as well as a long-term strategy to ensure people can get emergency care when they need it. That means addressing workforce shortages, fixing the social care crisis and ending the shortage of hospital beds, all of which are leaving patients in ambulances stuck outside A&E for hours."