HEALTH chiefs have said ‘unprecedented demand’ for NHS services is why patients arriving at hospital by ambulance have faced waits of up to six hours.

Darlington Memorial Hospital had queues of 15 ambulances on Monday as medical staff became overwhelmed with the number of people needing treatment.

It meant there were delays in getting vital treatment to people taken there in response to 999 emergency calls.

And also meant there were fewer paramedics available to serve communities across the region.

The Northern Echo understands lengthy delays at hospitals are now not uncommon as the overloaded NHS struggles to deal with bruising impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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Paul Liversidge, chief operating officer and deputy chief executive at North East Ambulance Service, said: “The timely handover of patients at our local hospitals is key to us being able to free up our valuable resource; if our ambulance crews are stuck at hospital, they are not available to respond to 999 calls, leading to potential ambulance delays in the community.

“On Monday alone, we lost around 120 hours to handover delays across the North East.

“Nobody wants to see patients waiting in the back of ambulances.

“However, hospital delays are a symptom of the current pressures facing the whole urgent and emergency care system, both regionally and nationally, and we appreciate the difficult job our hospital colleagues face.

“We continue to work closely with them to try and relieve demand in a bid to ensure patients are seen as quickly as possible.”

Mr Liversidge said people can help alleviate the pressure on the NHS.

He said: “Members of the public can continue to help us during this time of unprecedented demand by only using 999 and A&E for emergency treatment, and making use of other services around them, such as GPs, pharmacies and 111 online, where they are able.”

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County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust said the emergency departments at both Darlington and Durham are seeing increasing numbers of patients with over 20,000 attendances last month alone.

A spokesperson said: “Like many other NHS Trusts, our teams are working incredibly hard to manage challenging demand on services.

“We also continue to treat patients requiring hospital admission for Covid-19 as well as running all other services including outpatients and planned surgery.

“In April we opened a same day emergency care unit at Darlington Memorial Hospital, which means patients with relevant conditions can be rapidly assessed, diagnosed and treated without being admitted to a ward, and if clinically safe to do so, will go home on the same day.

“We’re also working with health and social care partners across the region including colleagues from the ambulance service, to help manage these challenges and would ask the public to also play their part by choosing the right service for their needs and thinking about pharmacy, GP and the 111 service to keep the emergency departments free to support life threatening illnesses and injuries.”

Now County Durham MPs from both sides of the House of Commons are calling for answers - and action – to remedy the problem.

Darlington Conservative MP Peter Gibson said: “I am deeply concerned about the reported delays being experienced.

“In addition to my regular meetings with DMH and NEAS I have sought to urgently meet both organisations to understand the issue, what steps they are taking to resolve the difficulties following which I will immediately take the issue up with ministers.”

Durham City MP Mary Kelly Foy said a well-functioning health service should be able to meet the needs of the population.

She said: “The reality is that these delays impact the lives of real people and the residents of Durham are being put at risk.

“Frustratingly, Government Ministers’ only solution appears to be to cross their fingers and pile more work onto already over-burdened staff.

“It simply isn’t good enough.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the Government was investing an extra £5.4 billion in the NHS over the next six months to help it cope with the pandemic.

A spokeswoman said: “We are supporting the NHS to meet the unprecedented pressures it is facing.

“Record investment is helping to tackle the backlog, with £8 billion over the next three years, which will deliver an extra 9 million checks, scans, and operations for patients across the country.

“At the same time, the NHS is deploying more efficient, innovative ways to deliver more appointments and treatments, including dedicated surgical hubs to ramp up routine surgery and new community diagnostic centres to enable easier and quicker diagnosis.”

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