Half of 999 calls not reached by ambulance on time in Northern Ireland
Ambulances are failing to reach almost half of the most urgent 999 calls on time, shocking figures reveal.
In the last year, a total of 27,884 category A incidents - an average of 76 a day - weren't responded to by ambulance crews within the target eight minutes.
This means only 51% of calls were reached in time. The response rate has also fallen alarmingly from five years ago, when 68.3% calls were responded to within eight minutes.
In 2012/13 a total of 15,737 calls were responded outside the target.
Official targets say 72.5% of category A calls should be reached in eight minutes - yet not once in the last year was this met. In one month, December 2016, just 45% were answered within eight minutes.
The figures emerged in a report from the Department of Health released yesterday.
If figures continue to fall, soon over half of all category A 999 calls won't be responded to in time.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) said the declining performance levels reflect an increasing demand on emergency services each year.
UUP health spokesperson Roy Beggs called the figures "frightening" and claimed that lives are being put at risk.
"The importance of ambulances and paramedics arriving on time cannot be emphasised enough," he said.
"The longer someone has to wait for assistance in an emergency the greater the risk there is of them coming to serious and lasting harm," he said.
The Department of Health figures also detail emergency department waiting times for 2016/17.
Only 69.8% of patients attending Northern Ireland's main emergency departments were treated and discharged or admitted within four hours of their arrival.
The official target is supposed to be 95%.
Mr Beggs called the waiting times "disgraceful". Kevin McAdams, who represents health workers for the Unite Union, said the decline in response times showed a chronic under investment across the health service. "A lot of the pressure on the NIAS is because of the backlog in emergency departments, they can't discharge efficiently when leaving patients off," he said. "There's also a lack of an effective training mechanism for bringing in new paramedics.
"The Ambulance service can only be as good as the support it gets."
Responding to the report, a spokesperson for NIAS said 210,027 calls were made to the 999 service in 2016/2017, showing a rising demand each year.
"The Trust regrets that we were again unable to reach this target (of 72.5%)," the spokesperson said.
He said the key challenges include:
• Matching limited resources with increasing demand, particularly overnight and at the weekend;
• Longer on scene times due to more complex care pathways;
• Traffic congestion and increased requests for diverts and multiple responses to incidents such as traffic collisions;
• Impact of major incidents and special events on service delivery;
• An unforeseeable increase in long-term absenteeism among staff due to critical and long-term sickness which led to more retirements than expected, and;
• Challenges in balancing training and keeping staff on duty.
The NIAS added they had recently recruited and trained 43 ambulance care attendants, 48 emergency medical technicians (EMTs), 27 bank paramedics and 10 bank EMTs.
In addition, the spokesperson said that four hospital ambulance liaison officers are also used to assist with patient flow and facilitating patient turnaround.
He said the Ambulance Service is also working with hospitals to reduce A&E congestion.
The spokesperson added: "Moving forward, the Trust is engaged in a number of initiatives to improve our capacity to achieve the targets.
"These include a demand/capacity review, while we also examine how our clinical response model should be targeted to ensure that we reach the sickest patients in the shortest possible time."