‘Critical incidents’ sounded at hospital and ambulance trusts- what does it mean, can I still get help?

The ‘critical incidents’ at trusts across the country came during a second day of nurse strikes followed by a mass-walk out by ambulance workers.

Hospital and ambulance trusts across the country have declared critical incidents over “unprecedented” and “sustained” pressure on services. Trusts said that declaring a critical incident allows trusts to prioritise patients that are most in need and implement additional measures to protect patient safety.

It comes after a second day of nurse strikes on Tuesday, followed by industrial action by ambulance workers today (Wednesday, December 21) that will see thousands of paramedics, technicians and control room staff walk out in England and Wales.

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NHS bosses have warned that patient safety “cannot be guaranteed” during the 24-hour strike today. Unions have said that life-threatening callouts will be responded to but warned that some urgent calls, for example a fall at home or late-stage labour, may not be answered.

What services have declared critical incidents?

The following hospital and ambulance trusts in England have declared critical incidents:

• North East Ambulance Service

• South East Coast Ambulance Service

• East of England Ambulance Service

• Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust

• Nottingham and Nottinghamshire’s health and care system

• South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust

• Yorkshire Ambulance Service

• Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust

What is a critical incident?

A critical incident is declared by an NHS trust facing extraordinary pressure. It tells bosses, staff and patients that the hospital will not be able to function as usual.

Large numbers of staff being absent and a very high number of patients can force a critical incident, as we saw during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

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What have trusts said?

A queue of ambulances are seen outside the Royal London Hospital emergency department on November 24, 2022. That week, nearly three in 10 ambulances were queuing outside hospitals in England. A queue of ambulances are seen outside the Royal London Hospital emergency department on November 24, 2022. That week, nearly three in 10 ambulances were queuing outside hospitals in England.
A queue of ambulances are seen outside the Royal London Hospital emergency department on November 24, 2022. That week, nearly three in 10 ambulances were queuing outside hospitals in England. | Getty Images

North East Ambulance Service, which operates across Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, County Durham, Darlington and Teesside, said the decision to declare a critical incident was made as a result of "significant delays for more than 200 patients waiting for an ambulance, together with a reduction in ambulance crew availability to respond because of delays in handing over patients at the region’s hospitals".

Chief operating officer Stephen Segasby said: "Our service is under unprecedented pressure. Declaring a critical incident means we can focus our resources on those patients most in need and communicate the pressures we are under to our health system partners who can provide support."

Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust said some appointments would be rescheduled after the trust declared a critical incident. Medical director Dr Keith Girling said staff were working "tirelessly" to deal with a "large number of people with illnesses arriving in emergency departments seeking assistance".

He added: "We regret that this will impact patients who were due to receive planned care over the next few days and sincerely apologise to all those affected.”

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What do I do if I need help?

Patients who are seriously ill or injured, or whose lives are in danger, are being advised by the NHS to call 999 despite the industrial action. For all other healthcare needs, the NHS is advising people to contact NHS 111 online or via the NHS 111 helpline, or to contact their local GP or pharmacy.

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