999 crews arrived late for half of emergency calls in Northern Ireland
'Outrageous' delays make ambulance crews late for half of 999 calls
Ambulances are failing to reach nearly half of 999 calls on time in Northern Ireland, it can be revealed.
Crews are late to almost 70 life-threatening incidents every day.
Government regulations state 72.5% of emergency calls each month should be responded to within eight minutes.
But at no point in the last two years did the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) reach that target.
In one month more than half of all category A calls were late.
The figures were disclosed after an Assembly question from Ulster Unionist MLA Sam Gardiner.
Health Minister Simon Hamilton said the response times were "unacceptable" and has demanded improvement.
Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson said: "For many years Northern Ireland had an emergency response system to be proud of. Now, however, people in real emergencies such as road traffic collisions and those experiencing cardiac difficulties are having to wait for longer for emergency assistance to arrive.
"That's simply outrageous, and tragically I suspect the massive impact of these delays have already been felt in many emergencies."
Since March 2015 the Ambulance Service is expected to respond to 72.5% of category A (life-threatening) calls within eight minutes.
Yet between March and October last year a total of 16,698 responses were outside this target.
That is equivalent to 68 a day - or 53.7% - on average.
Mr Hamilton's answer provides ambulance response times dating back to November 2013.
From November 2013 to last October, a total of 45,980 emergency calls were not answered within the eight minutes.
Responses within eight minutes steadily decreased from 69.6% in November 2013 to 49.9% last February.
Since then they have recovered slightly to 58%, but are still well off the 72.5% target.
Ms Dobson added: "The importance of ambulances and paramedics arriving on time cannot be emphasised enough; the longer someone has to wait for assistance in an emergency the greater the risk there is of them coming to serious harm.
"The target for category A calls, those which are considered to be life-threatening, is that 72.5% should be responded to within eight minutes.
"It is frightening, however, that in the last month figures are available, October 2015, only 58% arrived within eight minutes."
Figures obtained by the UUP last year revealed that fire appliances arriving in high-risk situations in the target six minutes had fallen from 77% to 59% between 2011/12 and 2014/15.
"Both of these figures now confirm that the crisis in our hospitals has spread across to our emergency services," Ms Dobson added.
"I was glad that the minister in his response accepted that the delays were unacceptable, however it was disappointing that he expressed no regret at all for them.
"The deterioration in response times and the general collapse in hospital waiting times can be directly attributed to the crisis in the NHS finances, a situation that the current Minister of Health Simon Hamilton helped to create while he was the Minister of Finance."
Mr Hamilton said: "I find these response times unacceptable and my department has asked the Health and Social Care Board and the NIAS to improve performance. There have been a number of factors contributing to this including increasing demand.
"Over the past five years the number of category A calls resulting in an emergency response attending the scene of an incident has increased by 30.9%, from 43,510 in 2010/11 to 56,934 in 2014/15.
"Additional funding of £775,000 has been allocated in 2015/16 and £1,077,000 recurrently from 2016/17 to NIAS to manage the increasing demand for this service."
In a statement, the Ambulance Service said: "NIAS acknowledge with regret the deterioration in performance in relation to response to category A calls.
"Clearly, increasing demand is a key factor which has been widely recognised within the health and social care system.
"There are other factors which have impacted upon this deterioration in response including impact of reconfiguration of acute services; knock-on effect of busier emergency departments and staff recruitment."
NIAS said it was using extra investment to increase ambulance response capacity.
It added: "It is worth noting that, in real terms, NIAS continues to reach more category A patients quicker than ever before.
"In 2014/15, NIAS responded to 2,549 more category A patients within eight minutes than in 2010/11 - an improvement of 8.4%.
"Category A response times will also be impacted upon by the availability of crews to respond and this must be set in the context of the increasing number of 999 calls against all calls received in ambulance control.
"In 2010/11 NIAS responded to 166,415 calls increasing by 15.6% to 192,443 responses in 2014/15."
Last November concerns were raised in England that NHS response times were manipulated in a desperate attempt to meet targets.
A policy meant 999 calls were recorded as having been responded to swiftly, even if health professionals did not attend, it was claimed.
Thousands of "life-threatening" calls in which the target was missed were reclassified, a whistleblower said.
In one English region crews were allegedly able to manipulate figures by proving that public defibrillators were within 250 metres of the patient.