Bishop of London leads debate on ambulance handovers

The Bishop of London tabled a question for short debate on 3rd November 2022, concerning ambulance handovers in light of an upcoming strike:

The Lord Bishop of London: To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they are making on ensuring swift ambulance handovers, as set out in Our Plan for Patients, published on 22 September, given the decision of ambulance workers across 11 trusts to ballot for strike action.

My Lords, I start by saying how grateful I am to your Lordships’ House for setting time aside for what I think is an important and timely debate. I am also grateful for the briefing from the House of Lords Library.

Last week, the GMB union announced that it was balloting ambulance workers over strike action across 11 trusts in what would be the biggest ambulance workers’ strike for 30 years. I think it would be wise to ask ourselves what has happened across the whole system to bring us to this point. Ambulance handover delays are an increasing issue across the trusts in England. The NHS contract for this year sets out that 90% of handovers should take place within 30 minutes and 65% within 15. However, the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives notes 40,000 cases of patients waiting longer than an hour for handover—this was recorded this year and is the third-highest volume on record.

Long handover delays increase the risk of harm to patients while they are in ambulances. The NHS Confederation says that eight out of 10 patients who were delayed beyond 60 minutes were assessed as having had an experience that had potentially harmed them, and nearly one in 10 experienced severe harm as a result. The number of ambulances waiting to transfer their patients also impacts on the availability of ambulances, and the response times therefore increase. This in turn risks increasing further harm to those who are waiting for an ambulance in the community. Florence Nightingale famously once said that hospitals should do no harm. It is a sentiment that I believe is appropriate to the wider healthcare system. The healthcare system should do no harm.

Delays in handover also cause extreme anxiety for patients and families at a time when they are often very distressed. To be honest, waiting in an ambulance in this way is not how we should be treating people who have an inherent dignity. Long handovers are also putting pressure on staff and services right across the board. The Care Quality Commission’s annual report State of Care highlights the impact of waiting for handover on ambulance workers themselves. They cannot respond to incidents in the community. There may be a higher pressure on all staff involved, including call handlers who are trying to manage people who are repeatedly re-calling to check the status of their ambulance.

In addition to this, some ambulance workers are missing breaks and finishing their shifts late because they are required to stay with their patients as they wait to hand them over. These services function because people are working hard, even if they are not getting the resources that are required and the support they should be getting. The truth is that we cannot expect them to keep doing this.

The plan for patients set out by the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care promised a “laser-like focus” on ambulance handover times. However, the plan that was set out lacked detail and made no headway in addressing the issue of workforce sustainability or retention. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect a workforce strategy to be published? A workforce strategy is key to any attempt to address this issue, which of course is one of the major issues facing the NHS and social care at this time.

The issue of ambulance handovers is one that gets to the heart of so many difficult issues which are within the health and social care sector. The NHS Confederation analysis of ambulance handovers states:

“Ambulance handover delays are not an ambulance issue, they are a whole-system issue and require a whole-system response.”

Some of the other issues that sit within the whole system are those we have discussed very recently in this House. They include, for example, the difficulty that people face in making a GP appointment. If you are unable to make a GP appointment, it may delay the time that you present, and therefore you become sicker. If you fail to be able to make a GP appointment, it may exacerbate the numbers of people who come to A&E.

There is also the significant issue of discharge into social care. The £500 million adult social care funding, announced by the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was intended to assist with this. However, Matthew Taylor of the NHS Confederation has written to the Secretary of State, Steve Barclay, to say:

“Leaders across the NHS and local authorities are yet to see a single penny of this investment and any official detail on how it will be allocated”.

Change does not come quickly. Therefore, having the detail of this money and how it is to be allocated is important if we are going to avert a crisis this winter.

Furthermore, we have yet to understand whether this is not just an absorption of the health and social care levy repeal. As we discovered during the short passage of the Health and Social Care Levy (Repeal) Bill, the general budget is absorbing the loss of the tax increase so that the overall funding level for the health and social care sector does not change. Is it possible that this new £500 million for adult social care discharge fund is not new money, but is contributing to the absorption of the cut in the levy? I wonder whether the Minister could write to confirm the position.

I am sure noble Lords are aware that I have a particular concern for health inequalities. These inequalities are showing themselves in this area as well. The Care and Quality Commission annual report states that those living in the most deprived areas are likely to be more severely impacted by ambulance delays. It goes on to discuss the role of the ambulance service in meeting the needs of people caused by other failings across the sector:

“Anecdotal evidence … suggests that, traditionally, the ambulance service has fulfilled an informal role in helping people from deprived communities to navigate the health system”.

I have been fortunate recently to chair the Health Inequalities Action Group, which published its report last month. The report notes some of the barriers that both faith groups and healthcare workers face in engaging with each other, and the impact that would be possible with more constructive engagement, and the effect on reducing health inequalities. There is much work to be done to ensure that the more hidden groups, such as those known and represented by faith groups, can access the full benefit of healthcare available. If undertaken, this type of work will reduce pressure on the NHS, which, as a former Chief Nursing Officer for the Government, I feel is in crisis. This type of work, reducing health inequalities between healthcare and faith care workers, could also be part of a whole-system approach.

Ambulance handovers must be improved. However, without a workforce that is valued, supported and listened to, it is difficult to see how this is possible. In some ways, it is unsurprising that this balloting on action is being undertaken. According to the GMB acting national secretary, a third of ambulance workers think that a delay they have been involved with has led to a death. Can you imagine the impact that has on the well-being of healthcare and ambulance workers? Healthcare workers are also experiencing the cost of living crisis.

To draw to a close, what assessment have the Government made of the impact of ambulance waiting times on the loss of staff, and the loss of staff on ambulance waiting times? This will be the biggest ambulance workers’ strike for 30 years if it goes ahead, and this workforce is not in isolation. Last week, there was a further announcement of strikes across the NHS from UNISON. Yesterday, the Royal College of Nursing closed its UK-wide ballot for the first time for strike action in 106 years. The Royal College of Midwives and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy are also balloting on strike action. It cannot be overstated how serious this is, not just for patients or our health but for the economic recovery of this country. This is a whole-systems problem which requires a whole-systems solution. I look forward to the contributions of other noble Lords and to the Minister’s response.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Brinton (LD): My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London on securing this important debate and thank her for her thoughtful and knowledgeable introduction. I also echo her thanks to the House of Lords Library for its briefing and the Royal College of Nursing. It is important that we start by paying tribute to our ambulance and paramedic staff and, obviously, ambulance call handlers—as well as 111 staff, who may not automatically come into that category but are also fulfilling a very important role. All are doing the absolute best they can, despite the current circumstances. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

We have had regular debates, Questions and Statements on the problems in our ambulance services for over a year now; everyone recognises that they are at breaking point. Record long ambulance waits are leaving vulnerable patients stuck outside hospitals waiting for the treatment they need. This debate rightly focuses on the part of the crisis that is very visible to everyone—ambulances queueing outside hospitals and delays in response times and handovers because A&E is full—and refers to the Government’s plan for patients.

Baroness Merron (Lab): In my view, the NHS faces what can only be described as a perfect storm in the making—except perfect it is not. The situation is absolutely dire and has been for many years; this is not a new problem. We have heard many times in your Lordships’ House about the well-documented challenges of getting an ambulance in an emergency. These challenges have served only to undermine the profound trust that the public ought to have in the National Health Service. In August alone, the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives estimated that around 35,000 patients were potentially at risk of harm as a result of long handover delays, with just under 4,000 of these experiencing potentially severe harm. There is no doubt that delay is the enemy of good care and safety.

As we have heard, delayed handovers are not just damaging in themselves. They result in poorer ambulance response times, as ambulances sit queueing outside A&E departments and cannot therefore get to patients waiting in the community. This increases pressure on not only clinical staff but ambulance call handlers, as the right reverend Prelate said, as distressed patients and their families call to get updates on their wait time, leading to thousands of duplicate calls and placing ever more pressure on ambulance services.

This situation now has all the potential to get even worse, with ambulance workers in 11 trusts balloting for strike action. If it does go ahead, it will be the biggest strike in that sector for some 30 years, which is surely nothing short of a disgrace. Union leaders have said that this is as much about patient safety as pay—and of course, when we talk about pay, we are doing so in the midst of a cost of living crisis. The right reverend Prelate asked the question: what has brought us to this point? I hope the Minister will reflect on that and perhaps give a view on it today to your Lordships’ House.

Lord Markham (Con): I reassure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London that ambulances are an utmost priority for this Government. We are absolutely committed to supporting the ambulance service to ensure that people receive the treatment that they need when they need it. However, as many noble Lords have noted, our ambulance services have faced unprecedented pressure since the pandemic, so I totally agree with the point that this is a whole-system issue, as the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, mentioned, and a “beds and backlog” issue, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned. We all have similar variants on that. The plan for patients is still valid and is being reviewed by the current team. It is always being worked on and updated.

To directly address the point of the whole-system issue, or flow, some work that I have done has shown that the biggest predictor of ambulance wait times and handover times is bed occupancy. We all know that bed occupancy, which can be as high as 95%, with about 10% of our beds being taken up by Covid, is very much the issue. That is the first priority. Obviously, the Covid and flu vaccination programmes are important parts of that, but the £500 million adult social care fund to remove the 13% of bed blocking is vital to this.

I assure all the speakers who have mentioned it that the question of how the spend is allocated has been the subject of much debate, because we want to make sure that it really is targeted in the right place. Again, as a data hound, I wanted to make sure that we really were spending it in the best place. How it is spent now has been agreed, and that should be seen very quickly in the system.

The other issue regarding bed occupancy is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned, the 7,000 new beds. I am a big believer in the use of virtual wards, but I will get that breakdown so that we understand exactly what that situation is. I have been very much at the forefront of making sure that those 7,000 beds are targeted at the areas of most need, which is vital in all of this.

I think we all agree that dealing with the flow to create the space for A&E patients is the central issue. Primary care is a part of it too. That is why the 50 million increase in appointments is a vital part, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and the noble Baronesses, Lady Merron and Lady Brinton. I will get the specific information on pharmacies as well.

(…) We recognise the pressures that the ambulance service and the wider NHS are facing. We continue to work closely with NHS England to ensure that patients receive the help they need when they need it. With that, I once again pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London for securing this important debate. I know that we have a meeting soon, where I look forward to discussing this further.

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