HUNDREDS of ambulances were left queuing outside hospitals in Merseyside as winter pressures took their toll.
Figures from the Department of Health show emergency vehicles were stacked up 322 times in three months as paramedics waited to hand their patients over to overwhelmed A&E departments.
At one of the region’s hospitals – Whiston hospital – ambulances were queuing as many as 25 times in one day.
Because of the way statistics are collected it is unknown how many patients would have had to wait in the back of the ambulances outside hospitals until they could be admitted.
All hospitals are put under pressure over the winter months as they battle ailments more prevalent in the cold weather such as the sickness bug norovirus, respiratory problems and more.
But the statistics show some hospitals coped better than others.
The Royal Liverpool Hospital has one of Merseyside’s busiest A&E departments, but despite this paramedics were able to hand over their patients to A&E staff without a problem.
Just down the road at Fazakerley hospital, in the same timeframe, ambulances queued 87 times.
And at Whiston hospital in same three months there were 117 incidences of ambulances queuing for more than half and hour. November 12 was a particularly busy day with 25 queuing incidents logged in one day.
Southport hospital had 37 incidences and Warrington hospital had 77. Wirral’s Arrowe Park hospital had four incidences and Alder Hey Children’s Hospital had none.
But North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) insisted no patients with life-threatening injuries would have faced any wait as crews phone ahead to ensure an A&E team is on standby to accept them.
Dave Kitchin, Cheshire & Merseyside Head of Service at NWAS, said the figures were a “small percentage” out of the hundreds of ambulance that arrive at hospitals each day.
The figures were collected to show the pressures on hospitals over the winter months and cover the period between November 6, 2012 and January 27, 2013.
The figures are the number of incidences where ambulances have queued more than 30 minutes to hand over their patient to the care of A&E staff.
‘Queuing’, officials stress, does not necessarily mean a patient had to physically wait in an ambulance as they could be waiting in A&E with the paramedic to be handed over to A&E staff.
A spokeswoman for Whiston hospital said they had been “particularly busy” over the past few months.
She said: “The trust has the highest number of A&E attendances across Cheshire and Merseyside and has seen a very significant increase since the new hospital opened.”
Management at Arrowe Park said: “Demand on hospital services at this time of the year always increases and places additional pressure on resources.”
And a spokesman for Fazakerley hospital made it clear that the figures included ‘empty’ ambulances.
He added: “This winter has been extremely busy for the health service and on a number of occasions we have been receiving diverted cases from other hospitals in the region which has increased pressure on us.”
He said they had hired additional nursing staff and invested in new ambulance handover bays to reduce handover times for patients and get ambulances back on the road as quickly as possible.
Southport hospital chief operating officer, Sheilah Finnegan, added: “In common with other local hospitals, we experienced enormous demand for A&E services in December and January.
“In December, there was a 35% increase in ambulance attendances at our A&E department in Southport..”
A spokesman for Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust added: “On the vast majority of days there are no delays at all but there have been occasions when the department is particularly busy with urgent cases or serious accidents that have led to waits.”
He said a recently completed £1.4m redesign of A&E has included the creation of a new triage and handover area so patients could be handed over quicker and given speedy assessment. He also said they had also recruited extra staff.
Mr Kitchin said a “rapid handover initiative” they are working on would speed up care for patients and get ambulances back out on the road quicker.
He said that in the “vast majority of cases” there were no patients waiting in the vehicles and that, with the exception of patients with major trauma or life-threatening injuries, everyone was looked at on arrival to determined their need.
He added: “Even in times of extreme activity the care of patients with life-threatening conditions would be handed to hospital staff immediately after arrival.
“There are some emergency incidents where we do see a delay in the handover of care from ourselves to a clinician and these are the focus of a great deal of partnership working.
“A rapid patient handover initiative is currently being implemented throughout the region which will allow ambulance crews to immediately handover patients enabling them to clear more quickly and be ready to respond to subsequent incidents.”