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‘It became too much to bear’ - The Norfolk town with the longest wait for an ambulance in the country

PUBLISHED: 14:31 06 March 2019 | UPDATED: 15:33 06 March 2019

Wells-next-the-Sea. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Wells-next-the-Sea. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

People living in a north Norfolk town wait longer for an ambulance than anywhere else in Britain, new figures show.

According to an investigation by the BBC, critically injured people living in Wells wait on average 21 minutes, compared to the national average for rural areas of 11 minutes for serious conditions such as heart attacks or breathing issues.

It comes after a Freedom of Information request revealed that six of the 10 postcodes with the longest waiting times were in rural and coastal areas of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

An ambulance is meant to arrive within an average of six to eight minutes, depending on where you live. The national average for urban areas was seven minutes.

Other areas in our region which recorded waits longer than 16 minutes were:

• IP19, which covers Halesworth, where the wait was 17 minutes and eight seconds

• NR35, which covers Bungay, where the wait was 16 minutes and 51 seconds

• IP20, which covers Harleston, where the wait was 17 minutes and 41 seconds

• IP26, which covers Mundford, Northwold and Methwold, where the wait was 17 minutes and 12 seconds

Sotak Robinson, manager of Dorrington House Care Home. Photo: BBCSotak Robinson, manager of Dorrington House Care Home. Photo: BBC

• NR16, which covers East Harling, Banham and Bunwell, where the wait was 16 minutes and 35 seconds

According to the BBC figures, the single longest wait was recorded in Wells, and was followed by RH14, in Chichester, Suffolk.

The data came from the average response times for the most life-threatening callouts in more than 2,700 local communities across Britain, which had at least 50 call outs over the January to October 2018 time period - more than one a week.

The BBC says these represent about one in 20 emergency cases the ambulance services deals with, and includes cardiac arrests, stab wounds, seizures, major blood loss and cases where patients are not breathing, or struggling to breathe.

Kevin Short volunteered as a community first responder (CFR) in north Norfolk for three years.

But he gave up the role - which sees volunteers trained to take certain emergency calls - in 2017 after dealing with stress.

He said: “As a CFR we are given a skill set, which is really linked to cardiac arrest. But of the roughly 330 jobs I did, about a dozen of those were cardiac arrests, which is traumatic enough.

“But I was trained in how to deal with those, I had the equipment. Sometimes you can go along and with good experience tell that someone has pulled a chest muscle. But I had experiences where the patient was obviously in a great deal of pain and fear, and an ambulance was not able to respond as quickly as I’d have liked.”

He said he had waited in the past for about 50 minutes, and was not allowed as a CFR to take temperatures, blood pressure or blood sugar levels in that time.

“I was there to represent the ambulance service and the community, and I ended up feeling really guilty that I couldn’t do anything,” he said.

“In the end the stress and anxiety became too much to bear.”

He said he had spoken to the ambulance service about better training CFRs and opening up progression routes.

In other parts of the region, waits were much shorter - in postcodes around Norwich, the wait fluctuated around five to seven minutes, and sat at 5 minutes and 54 seconds in NR5, which covers Costessey.

In PE30, which covers King’s Lynn and north Lynn, the wait was six minutes and 38 seconds, while in Great Yarmouth the wait was roughly six to seven minutes.

Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk, said delays had been a “perennial problem” in rural parts of Norfolk.

He said the delay targets for trusts left the system at risk of skewed figures, with faster response times in busier urban, and easier to reach, areas taking the focus off a smaller number of long delays in rural places.

He questioned why the region’s ambulance trust was a “poor performer” and said the rurality of Norfolk was “not unique or new”, with areas which have a similar make-up, such as Cornwall, recording better response times.

“We are talking about life or death situations here. The brutal truth is that people can die if there is a long delay - that’s why we have these response times in the first place,” he said.

Mr Lamb used a stroke as an example - which he suffered in 2018 - and said that people could be left with life long disabilities if appropriate treatment was not received quickly enough.

Sotak Robinson, who manages Dorrington House Care Home in Wells, said she wasn’t surprised by the figures.

She said their residents had endured long waits while needing medical help in the past, citing four particular incidents in the last six months.

She said on one occasion one patient suffered a brain haemorrhage and waited for 45 minutes for an ambulance, another had a suspected stroke and waited 45 minutes, another with chest paints waited 25 minutes and another patient with a fractured hip waited two hours and 40 minutes.

She said waiting for an ambulance with the person who had a brain haemorrhage had been the “worst experience” in her nine years in care.

But she said she understood it was a complex situation.

“I completely understand - I don’t know where they were before us, maybe there’s a child down the road that needed urgent attention,” she said. “The crews are great but the delays are really bad.”

How long should people wait?

• In England, the ambulance service is expected to reach patients in roughly seven minutes - but this can include a response by community first responders (CFRs).

• In Scotland, the target is that at least half of patients will be reached in six minutes, while in Wales the target is eight minutes.

What did the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust (EEAST) say?

Dorothy Hosein, chief executive, said: “When we receive a 999 call, the call is allocated to the dispatch team who immediately dispatch the nearest available ambulance. While they travel to the patient, if another ambulance is nearer and becomes available, that will be dispatched. Our dispatch teams are constantly moving resources around to keep cover as effective as possible.

“Taking patients to hospital and returning to base can take a crew out of an area for some time. In rural areas such as Wells-next-the-Sea, which is approximately 30 miles distant from two of Norfolk’s hospitals, it is challenging to maintain the same level of response we provide in more densely populated areas, especially when responding to high numbers of our most seriously ill patients.”

She said the trust has “every sympathy” with people having to wait in difficult circumstances, and said it works hard to get to the sickest patients as quickly as possible.

“Our Emergency Clinical Advice and Triage Centre constantly monitors and reviews patients to ensure their safety and welfare,” she said.

She said the trust also:

• Works closely with partners within the NHS to ensure patients are treated quickly, but said delays with other agencies causes further delays to ambulances.

• Provides hospital ambulance liaison officers in A&E departments to assist hospital teams and ambulance crews to handover the sickest patients as a priority.

• Actively recruits more staff against a nationwide shortage of paramedics.

• Has developed a handover escalation process.

• Is putting in place additional capacity to maintain vehicles and minimise breakdowns, keeping more ambulances on the road.

• Is planning to recruit more CFRs (volunteers trained to attend emergency calls) to improve response rates in rural areas.

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