'NHS absolutely cannot cope': 999 call for man unable to breathe took 15 minutes amid coronavirus crisis

James MorrisSenior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
Yahoo News UK
The London Ambulance Service is responding to a record number of 999 calls. (AFP via Getty Images)
The London Ambulance Service is responding to a record number of 999 calls. (AFP via Getty Images)

People calling 999 face up to 15 minutes on hold as the London Ambulance Service struggles with “record” demand during the coronavirus crisis.

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Yahoo News UK has learned of one case on Tuesday in which a woman called 999 for a friend who “could barely breathe”. He had recently suffered pneumonia and a heart infection.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, the caller was stuck in a queue for about a quarter of a hour before she was able to speak to an operator. She then had to spend five minutes explaining the situation.

The caller said: “What’s terrifying is you call 999 and you expect to get through straight away. But there was a massive wait, even though he couldn’t breathe. Waiting for 15 minutes is alarming when that person is classed as one of the most vulnerable.”

Ultimately, it took one hour and 20 minutes for the patient to be transferred to a hospital in west London. Even then, he was eventually sent home as he was said to be suffering a viral respiratory infection rather than a complete respiratory failure.

“The NHS absolutely cannot cope,” the caller said. “Basically because they didn’t think he'd imminently die, they literally just told him to rest and drink fluids. He could barely breathe.”

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A London Ambulance Service spokeswoman said of the 15-minute wait: “We are responding to the record number of 999 calls we are receiving as quickly as possible, but as a significant number are about COVID-19 we are trialling a system which asks callers a limited number of questions before they are transferred to one of our call handlers to make sure we continue to prioritise our sickest and most seriously injured patients.

“If the caller needs advice rather than immediate lifesaving medical attention, they will be asked to look at nhs.uk/coronavirus. The safety of all Londoners remains our top priority and we are closely monitoring the trial to ensure that it delivers those benefits.

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“The advice for anyone worried about coronavirus symptoms remains to visit nhs.uk/coronavirus as the first and best port of call for the latest guidance on what to do.”

As of Wednesday, 34% of the UK’s confirmed coronavirus cases were in London, with the capital’s hospitals facing a “continuous tsunami” of patients.

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Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said on Thursday that some hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed within the next few days.

On Wednesday, a leading professor also warned the NHS will probably come under peak strain from coronavirus in two to three weeks’ time – but “decline thereafter”.

Prof Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert, also said he was confident the NHS will cope and operate “within capacity” at a national level.

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