AMBULANCES are still not arriving to some of the most serious 999 emergencies quickly enough in Somerset, according to newly released data.

Figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests by the Liberal Democrats show the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SWASFT), which serves Somerset, took an average of nearly 10 minutes for an ambulance to reach Category 1 calls in 2023.

Ambulances are supposed to get to people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries such as cardiac arrest, known as category 1 calls, in an average of seven minutes. 

They should arrive within an average of 18 minutes for category 2 calls for emergencies such as strokes.

Speaking to the County Gazette, people in Taunton spoke of their admiration for the hard work of ambulance crews, but several spoke about their experiences of waiting for ambulances to arrive.

Rose, 60, had chest pains while at home in 2021, and her husband called 999.

“We rang for an ambulance and it didn’t arrive,” said Rose.

“We rang back an hour later and they said they couldn’t tell us when it was coming so we got in the car and my husband drove me to hospital.

“I was ok, but it was very frightening. I was having a heart attack – it was a proper emergency.

“It does make me feel quite angry to think about it. You pay tax all your life and when you need it, it’s not there.”

Somerset County Gazette: Ambulances are targeted to arrive at category 1 calls within seven minutes.Ambulances are targeted to arrive at category 1 calls within seven minutes. (Image: James Sladden/Flourish)

Ruth, 87, spoke about the anxiety the response times causes older people: “It does concern me.

“You think about people my age and they fall over and get stuck and they have nobody there, it’s a problem.

“I think the NHS is just overwhelmed.”

The longest individual response time in 2023 in Somerset West and Taunton was nearly an hour for a Category 1 call, and six hours for a Category 2 call.

2022 was the worst year for response times, with an average ambulance response time of 12 minutes for Category 1, and over an hour for Category 2.

Average response times for both categories of emergencies improved across Somerset in 2023, but still remain slower than they were in 2019.

In a statement, a spokesperson for SWASFT, said: “We are sorry that we were unable to provide a timely response to some patients.

“Any occasion where the care we provide falls below the high standards our patients deserve and rightly expect is unacceptable.

"Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our people and partners, our response times have recovered to a more stable position, compared to the post-pandemic period, but there is still more to do.

“Handover delays at emergency departments remain one of our biggest challenges.

“To ensure our ambulances are available to attend the next emergency call within the community, we need to be able to hand patients over within the 15-minute national target.

“We continue to work hard with our partners in the NHS and social care, to do all we can to improve the service that patients receive.”

Ambulance response times are linked to the overall pressure on hospitals as beds have to be available for ambulance crews to admit patients, otherwise they have to wait, leading to less ambulances able to respond to calls.

Since 2020, SWASFT has increased the number of hours that ambulances are on the road each week from 37,000 to over 50,000 hours per week.

Conservative MP for Taunton Deane, Rebecca Pow, said: “I recognise that ambulance services are strained across our area and I have already brought this issue to the attention of the Health Minister.

“A plan is being implemented to reduce response times which is already having an effect and I am pleased that both category 1 and category 2 response times have improved as compared to last year, but there is of course more to do.”

Liberal Democrat Health and Social Care spokesperson, Daisy Cooper MP, called for more investment in the ambulance service, saying: “Calling an ambulance when you or a loved one is in a serious emergency is one of the most distressing moments of someone's life.

“The least people deserve is to know that an ambulance will be able to reach them in time. Sadly, too often that is not happening as these devastating figures show.”