MORE than 10,000 North-East patients have had to wait more than half-an-hour before being admitted to hospital, according to figures obtained by The Northern Echo.
Since April, the ambulance service has recorded 10,072 "incidents" in which handovers to hospital accident and emergency departments have taken longer than 30 minutes.
The Royal College of Nursing described the figures as "staggering" and called for more to be done to relieve the pressure on overworked staff.
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According to new penalty clauses written into contracts at the start of the financial year the North-East Ambulance Service (NEAS) will be fined £201,440 for delays of more than 30 minutes.
The NEAS was also held responsible for its part in 499 delayed handovers which have taken longer than one hour.
The bill for these longer delays is £49,900, giving a total for the period from April to October of £251,340.
Elsewhere in the region, hospital trusts are also facing thousands of pounds worth of fines for their part in delayed handovers at A&E.
The Government is hoping that financial penalties will help to solve the problem of ambulances queuing up outside hospital casualty departments.
But the sheer volume of handover delays was criticised by regional health unions, who also voiced doubts about fines.
A regional spokesman for the Royal College of Nursing said: "The scale of the problem revealed by The Northern Echo is staggering. The fact that around 10,000 patients have had to wait between 30-60min after arriving by ambulance- before they can even be admitted to A&E- is simply not acceptable."
The RCN spokesman said it seemed "completely counter-intuitive" to fine NHS trusts because this "takes vital resource away from the very areas where the pressures exist in the first place".
Joel Byers, Unison branch secretary for the NEAS, said: "Ambulance crews are being fined for doing our jobs. What do they want us to do, leave the patients in the car park?"
He called for additional resources to be ploughed into A&E departments.
One of the worst problems was at the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust - which runs Darlington Memorial Hospital and the University Hospital of North Durham - where there were 1,570 handovers which took longer than 30 minutes between April and October and 360 handovers which took longer than 60 minutes.
Although this triggers a fine of £674,000 on the hospital, officials insisted last night that the penalties "are reinvested to support service improvement".
South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, logged 466 breaches of the 30 minute handover rule during the same period as well as 126 breaches of the 60 minute target, triggering fines of £219,000.
North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust - which runs the University Hospital of North Tees - recorded just 11 handovers which exceeded 30 minutes and two which went over the 60 minute mark since April, meaning a fine of £4,200.
However, the ambulance service does seem to be getting on top of the problem. An analysis of the NEAS figures showed a big drop in breaches during the course of the year.
In June, the NEAS had its worst month to date with 2,715 breanches of the 30 minute handover rule and 129 breaches of the 60 minute rule.
This compared with the October figures which logged 139 cases in which handovers exceeded 30 minutes and 12 which exceeded one hour.
However, with winter just around the corner, unions fear an increase in patients being taken to A&E will see the service struggling to cope.
A spokeswoman for NEAS said: "The recent Keogh Report showed that up to 40 per cent of people who head for their local A&E department don't actually need to be there. They could have been treated by their GP or local walk-in centre. This unnecessary pressure on A&E staff causes a log-jam in the hospitals, and inevitably leads to delays.
"We would urge the public only to call the ambulance service when it's a genuine emergency, and also to make use of other services, such as 111."