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UK strikes leave British ‘SUS’ on the verge of collapse


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Rachel Parry and Wayne Jones, paramedics from the Wrexham Ambulance Service, stopped at a hospital in North Wales with a patient just after 10am in early December. That’s when the wait started.

It was 4:30 pm when the 47-year-old patient, with severe back pain and numbness in both legs, was delivered to Maelor Hospital’s emergency room. It had been more than 12 hours since she had first called 999, Britain’s emergency number.

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Delays have become so severe — and so common — said the two paramedics, that their first interaction with patients is no longer a presentation.

“Now we start with an apology,” Parry said. “Every job is like: they open the front door, and we’re like, ‘Hello, sorry we’re late.’ That’s become the norm.”

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The sight of ambulances queued for hours outside hospitals has become worryingly common in Wales, which last month recorded its worst waiting times for life-threatening emergency calls. But the problem is far from isolated. Ambulance services in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland are also facing record delays.

It’s a near-crisis situation that experts say signals a breach of pact between Britons and their prestigious National Health Service (NHS): that the government will provide responsible and efficient health services, generally free, for all income levels.

The issue came to a head on Wednesday (21st), when ambulance workers in England and Wales staged the first of two strikes over low wages and deteriorating working conditions. They are expected to protest again next week.

It will be the latest stoppage in a period of intense labor struggle in Britain, with a series of strikes planned across the country over the holiday season. Nurses staged their second one-day strike on Tuesday, and rail and border control workers at airports will begin several days of strikes later this week.

Numerous harrowing incidents have highlighted the UK’s ambulance problem, including that of an elderly man whose family covered him with a tarp while he waited seven hours after falling outdoors, and a 17-year-old football player who waited four hours lying in a rainy field after suffering a neck injury.

A New York Times photographer and I spent a day with the service in Wrexham this month and witnessed paramedics gently carrying patients down stairs, navigating narrow streets and trying to comfort people during excruciatingly long waits in the hospital car park. Frustration built as the hours passed.

One challenge cited by health experts was evident that day: there is an acute shortage of beds in the accident and emergency department, which are overcrowded due to the inability to find space for patients elsewhere in hospitals.

This is because patients ready to be discharged often have nowhere else to go as a result of reduced social services – which have been hampered by a lack of government funding and severe staff shortages. This leaves ambulances queued outside waiting for the beds to open.

The frontline team is reaching a breaking point.

As Parry and Jones waited in the hospital with their second patient, there were at least 21 calls in their catchment area for which they and other paramedics also trapped in the hospital could not be mobilized. During the 12-hour shift, they saw only three patients.

“It’s frustrating,” Jones said. “These people are from the community and they are desperate.”

Good Samaritans sometimes step in and take people in distress to hospitals. As Parry and Jones waited with their patients, two cars pulled up to the ambulance drop-off point, delivering people. In both cases — an elderly woman who fell and broke her wrists and a woman who collapsed in a supermarket — the driver called emergency services only to be told it would be hours before an ambulance arrived.

“The crowd is working harder than I am today,” said Parry, frustrated, after helping the two arrivals at the hospital.

Analysis of the most recent data from the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives found that response times increased across the country, and patient transfer delays reached unprecedented levels in November.

Parry and Jones said their biggest fear is arriving to pick up a patient after a long delay and discovering they were too late.

“I know people have died,” Parry said. “I know a team that said, ‘We just saw someone who had been waiting four hours and had died on the couch.’

Ambulance services across the country, nearly all of which are owned by the National Health Service and run by each area’s local health fund, have described an increasing number of deaths related to long waits. An English ambulance service noted that the number of its teams has increased from just one in 2020 to at least 37 in 2022.

A spokesman for the government’s Department of Health and Social Care, which oversees the National Health Service, said in a statement that it recognizes the pressure on emergency responders “and is taking urgent steps to support the ambulance service and emergency personnel. “.

“Nobody should have to wait longer than necessary for emergency care,” the statement said, adding that the government is investing a further £6.6 billion ($10 billion) in the service over the next two years, “to ensure he takes action quickly to reduce waiting times.”

Frank Taylor waited three hours with his wife, Ann Taylor, 79, for an ambulance, saying it was hard for him to see her in so much pain.

When paramedics arrived, he was relieved to see them quickly hook her up to oxygen before gently carrying her, wrapped in a blue knitted blanket, down the stairs to the ambulance.

But when they arrived at the hospital, it was another two hours of waiting before Ann was finally admitted. Around 8:30 pm, she was transferred from the emergency room to the ICU, the final stopover after a long day of uncertainties.

Last year, she was placed in a nursing home after her health took a turn for the worse — she has an end-stage lung disease — and Frank visits her daily. It was there that the ambulance picked her up.

In his living room the next morning, Frank, 79, showed off the dozens of spoons his wife had collected over their five-decade marriage, displayed in a cupboard he made himself. “There are a lot of good memories here,” he said of the house where they raised five children.

While praising the paramedics’ care, he said the waiting time was frustrating. He worries about his wife’s dignity during this last phase of her life, but supports the upcoming ambulance strike. Emergency response calls have become a very tense waiting game.

“It’s not like it was years ago,” he said. “They came right away.”

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