Ministers have been accused of “sheer neglect” of people with mental illness as figures reveal one patient waited nearly three days for an ambulance to arrive last year.
Data obtained by the Liberal Democrats shows that ambulance services regularly breached response-time targets in emergency and urgent calls to help patients with a mental health crisis or severe illness last year.
The figures show the longest waits for emergency mental health ambulance callouts, which should be seven minutes on average, were more than two hours in 2022. The longest wait for an urgent callout, which is less of a priority than an emergency call, was more than 70 hours for an ambulance to reach one patient in the south-west of England.
The analysis of ambulance response times in 2022 for mental health patients comes amid mounting concern about the pressures on ambulance and other emergency services in meeting demand.
Figures published this year revealed that ambulance services in England spent 1.8m hours dealing with mental health calls in 2021/22. The Metropolitan police announced last May it would stop attending emergency calls related to mental health incidents unless there was a threat to life or crime being committed. Other police forces are also to attend fewer callouts.
Daisy Cooper, Lib Dem health and social care spokesperson, said: “This Conservative government has failed our local health services and left mental health and ambulance services overstretched.
“These figures lay bare the sheer neglect of the mental health crisis. It is deeply troubling that vulnerable people have been left in pain and distress due to these horrifically long wait times.
“Mental health must be treated with the same priority as physical health. The government must finally provide the funding and strategy so that every person struggling with mental ill health can access the right support when they need it.”
The Lib Dems obtained ambulance response times for emergency and urgent callouts for mental health patients in 2022 in freedom of information requests. These calls may involve patients with psychosis; drug overdoses; severe depression and a risk of self-harm; and severe anxiety.
Seven ambulance trusts in England and Wales provided data, with the longest waits for category 1 calls, or life-threatening illness, ranging from 32 minutes to two hours and 15 minutes. The longest waits for category 2 calls, which involve serious medical conditions which do not pose an immediate threat to life, ranged from 11 hours and 22 minutes to 26 hours and 39 minutes.
Ambulance trusts in England should, under a national standard, respond to category 1 calls in seven minutes on average and respond to 90% of category 1 calls in 15 minutes. They should respond to category 2 calls in 18 minutes on average and respond to 90% of category 2 calls in 40 minutes.
Category 3 responses are for urgent calls in which patients may be treated at home and should be responded to within two hours 90% of the time. According to the figures, the longest wait for a category 3 call for a mental health patient was 70 hours and 28 minutes at South Western ambulance service NHS foundation trust.
Of the trusts that responded, South Western ambulance service NHS foundation trust also had the longest wait for a category 1 call for a mental health patient.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are improving ambulance waiting times, which have substantially reduced compared with last year.
“We are increasing investment into mental health services by at least £2.3bn a year by March 2024 so that an additional two million people can get the support they need.
“We’re also investing £150m to support people experiencing a mental health crisis, rolling out new mental health ambulances and delivering over 160 projects including alternatives to A&E to ensure people can receive specialist care in appropriate spaces and to help ease pressure on the NHS.”
A spokesperson for the South Western ambulance service NHS foundation trust, said: “We are sorry that we were unable to provide a timely response to some patients. These figures relate to a time when our performance had not returned to pre-pandemic levels, due to handover delays at emergency departments.
“Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our people and partners, our response times from the middle of January 2023 onwards have recovered week-on-week to a more stable position.” The trust says its clinicians have oversight of patients who are waiting for an ambulance response, and will reprioritise when required.