Ambulance response times improve in face of ongoing winter pressures

Patients received faster ambulance response times last month, despite new figures showing it was the busiest January on record for the most serious 999 call-outs, as winter pressures and industrial action continue to impact the NHS.

Monthly performance figures published today show ambulances attended 72,861 Category 1 calls – for life-threatening cases – in January, up 20% on the same month pre-pandemic (60,777 in January 2020).

Ambulance response times in all four categories improved, with Category 2 an hour faster than December with an average response time of 32 minutes (down from one hour 32 minutes), and Category 1 responses took an average of eight and a half minutes (down from almost 11 minutes in December).

Almost three million calls were received by 111 in December (2,937,800) – the highest since the start of the pandemic when 2,970,964 calls were received in March 2020 – and an average of almost 95,000 each day.

The progress came as the NHS opened 10% more beds over January than in the same month last year as part of the health service’s extensive preparation for winter.

Bed occupancy remained high in January, as the NHS faced continued problems discharging people when they are ready, including due to pressures in social and community care. The monthly figures show that, each day last month, on average fewer than half (45.8%) of patients ready for discharge were discharged, leading to 13,959 patients spending more time in hospital than needed.

The NHS worked hard to ensure as little disruption for patients as possible during strikes in December, when almost 35,000 (34,427) elective procedures and appointments had to be rescheduled across the three days of industrial action held. January figures show 32,450 were rescheduled across five days of strikes.

Newly-published data from industrial action held earlier this week (February 6-7), shows 41,425 procedures and appointments were rescheduled.

While this inevitably had a knock-on effect on routine care and the waiting list, the number of people waiting for diagnostic tests went down (1,540,543 in December, from 1,593,025 in November), and those waiting more than a year for elective treatment also decreased (406,035, from 406,575).

Building on the progress already made this winter, the NHS last week published its blueprint to recover urgent and emergency care, setting out a two-year delivery plan including aims to help achieve A&E four-hour performance of 76% by March 2024, and improve Category 2 ambulance response times to an average of 30 minutes over the next year, with further improvement in the following year.

Separate figures, also published today, show the number of patients in hospital with norovirus has increased significantly – up 70% in the last month. For the week ending February 5, there were 742 adults in hospital with norovirus symptoms, up from 434 at the start of January.

NHS National Medical Director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: “Today’s figures show that despite ongoing pressures across the health service, including industrial action, NHS staff are continuing to work flat-out to deliver the best care for patients, with ambulance response times improving last month as the NHS continued to progress on its winter plan.

“Separate figures also show the number of people in hospitals with norovirus has jumped significantly, which is a reminder that while flu cases continue to go down other viruses are still a very real concern, and often means additional unoccupied beds need to be closed to prevent the virus spreading to other patients, putting more pressure on bed capacity.

“And while strike action inevitably impacted on progress on the waiting list backlog, the NHS is making good progress toward virtually eliminating 18-month waits by April.

“So as ever it is vital that people do not put off seeking care and come forward for treatment – using 111 online for non-life threatening care, as well as local pharmacies or general practice, or dialling 999 in a life-threatening emergency.”

Separate data shows the number of people in hospital with Covid is on the rise again, with most recent figures showing 6,055 patients with confirmed Covid-19 in hospitals on February 1.

The number of patients with flu continues to decrease, down to 895 last week compare to 1,203 in the week ending January 29.