A paramedic has lifted the lid on the daily pressures of working on the frontline which have left ambulance workers “exhausted, undervalued and overwhelmed”.
The whistleblower spoke to the Record after we revealed last week that the crisis-hit service has seen waiting times soar in the last two weeks.
And we told how paramedics union Unite had demanded a “major incident” be declared in a bid to reduce waiting times – which have soared to an average of six hours.
We also revealed how Red Cross volunteers had been drafted in to assist paramedics facing seven-hour waits outside the Accident and Emergency department at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
One ambulance worker revealed the full extent of the crisis in a heartbreaking account.
She said: “I am extremely concerned for my own health and wellbeing and that of my fellow colleagues. It’s time the public had an insight into behind the scenes of 999 calls.
“We work various shift patterns, ranging from eight hours, 10 hours and 12 hours.
“At the start of our shift we book on to an ambulance and should have adequate time to carry out a vehicle inspection to ensure we have all the necessary equipment and drugs to carry the shift out safely and effectively.
“However, this is almost always never the case and as soon as we book on we are dispatched to outstanding jobs – sometimes that have been in for over eight hours.”
The female paramedic, who does not want to be identified because she fears for her job, added: “In all the years I have been a paramedic I have never seen the job as bad as I do now.
“Yes, we are in unprecedented times but sickness records are high and morale is at an all-time low, with staff struggling mentally and physically.”
She said paramedics are entitled to a 45-minute break on a 12-hour shift and would expect to have it after about five hours of working.
But she said that “almost never” happens, with crews regularly working eight and 10 hours without adequate rest.
She added: “This is not safe and it’s not fair. If the crew has been fortunate enough to have their rest period after eight hours they often just make their food and sit down to eat it when the radio goes to say there is a red call transfer from one hospital to another.
“That eight hours then goes to potentially 10 hours and the food ends up being binned. How can we deliver lifesaving treatments to the public when we have had no food or drink for nine hours?”
And she fears lives could be lost because paramedics are fatigued.
She said: “Mistakes will be made and when that time comes it will be the crew who are disciplined not the management.”
She also highlighted other pressures. The ambulance worker added: “We are verbally abused by patients or their family because it’s taken us three or four hours to attend.”
The paramedic was speaking out days after the trade union Unite called on the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) to declare a “major incident” to protect the public.
The union told how excessive waiting times were putting lives at risk and that the average 999 ambulance wait has increased to six hours because of “system overload”.
The time from a 999 call being received until the patient is delivered to hospital was, on average, between 55 minutes and 70 minutes. Now it is taking six times as long, with patients waiting several hours at hospital doors to be handed over to medical staff.
This, in turn, is having an impact on subsequent calls, with some patients waiting 20 hours for an ambulance to arrive and then spending further hours in the vehicle before entering hospital.
Unite said waiting times outside hospitals on Tuesday peaked at seven hours, with some people waiting 24 hours for a bed. In real terms, this means an ambulance misses three 999 calls while at a hospital waiting for patient discharges.
The whistleblower said part of the problem is a new colour-coded triage system, designed to give priority to patients most in need. She said it “does not work and instead takes ambulances away from the people who need it”.
She added: “Our calls are colour coded, for example: Yellow – falls, nose bleeds, catheter issues and some hospital transfers. Amber – falls outside, chest pains, strokes and breathing problems.
“Red – overdoses, car accidents and unconscious patients. Purple – Cardiac arrest, not breathing, no pulse.”
But she said the model has led to “a free for all”. She said they receive notes stating a patient is conscious and breathing yet it has been graded as “purple”.
She added: “Your 78-year-old mum will be lying on her kitchen floor with a broken hip for eight hours because the ambulance that was on its way has been diverted to a 32-year-old male who’s vomiting and sounds like he has breathing problems. Lets face it, no one can vomit and breathe at the same time.
“Your 52-year-old father is experiencing chest pains and calls 999, an ambulance is dispatched. However, en route a 21-year-old male also phones with chest pain and breathing problems, this call takes priority and while the crew is dealing with the 21-year-old having a simple panic attack your father is having a heart attack and there is no ambulance to attend to him.
“Around 75 per cent of 999 calls we attend are not emergencies. We are just a taxi to hospital.”
She said the public needs educating about 999 emergencies.
She said: “It’s not because you’ve had back pain for six months and can’t get a hold of your GP.
“It’s not having too much to drink and thinking you have alcohol poisoning.
“An emergency is a cardiac arrest, someone not breathing with no pulse, or a stroke, an overdose, a life-threatening injury.”
And she begged: “Think before calling 999. Do you have transport to hospital yourself? Could you be taking an ambulance away from someone who really needs it?”
She added: “Ambulance staff are tired, feeling undervalued, feeling overwhelmed but most of all feeling let down and abused by the organisation they are employed by.”
An SAS spokesman said: “Our staff work incredibly hard, helping patients and saving lives every day. We completely understand the daily demands and pressure staff are under and we are doing everything we can to support them through a range of health and wellbeing support measures.
“In addition, we are continuing to recruit and train new ambulance staff across the country at pace to provide additional capacity.
“Given the sustained pressures on the NHS as a whole, exacerbated by the pandemic, we would advise patients to contact NHS24 on 111 and only call 999 if their condition is life-threatening.”