Five-hour delay for ambulance; AMs' outcry over 'turnaround times' at hospitals.
ASSEMBLY Members have criticised the Welsh Government for "systemic failure" in the health service after it emerged an ambulance suffered delays of almost five hours at a South Wales hospital.
Figures uncovered by the Echo show turnaround times for the month of May - a measure of the duration between an ambulance arriving at a hospital and being ready to respond to another incident.
One ambulance took almost five hours to become available for its next callout after arriving at Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil.
And at some hospitals, almost one in five ambulances took more than an hour to be cleared to respond to a new incident. Senior opposition AMs said the figures were part of wider problems in the Welsh health service, such as waiting times and bed shortages.
The Welsh Government said that, despite the delays at emergency departments, ambulance service performance had improved significantly in recent years.
Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams said: "When ambulances are forced to queue outside hospitals, not only does it lead to delays in patients' treatment, it also means that ambulances are not able to respond to other emergency calls.
"There is a systemic failure in our NHS from the point when ambulances arrive outside hospitals to the moment when patients are discharged. An ambulance and its crew can't save lives if they're tied up waiting outside hospitals." The figures were revealed through a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Echo to the Welsh Ambulance Service.
In South Wales, Merthyr Tydfil's Prince Charles Hospital recorded the highest average ambulance turnaround time at almost three quarters of an hour. And more than 17% of ambulances arriving at the hospital took more than an hour to become available for further callouts.
The best-performing hospital in the region was Llandough Hospital, which recorded an average turnaround time of 30 minutes. Plaid Cymru health spokeswoman Elin Jones AM said: "These high turnaround times, and the long waits that patients have faced in A&E recently, illustrate why the Government's decision to have fewer A&E sites in Wales is not going to lead to a better service.
"That is why Plaid Cymru will continue to fight the Labour Government's plans to centralise core services and downgrade district general hospitals."
A Welsh Government spokesman said: "We have been working with the NHS to develop sustainable solutions to relieve pressure. "The ambulance service currently receives approximately 35,000 emergency calls every month, a significant number of which result in an ambulance taking the patient to an emergency department. There has been a 76% increase in calls to the ambulance service between 2001-02 and 2011-12.
"While the majority of patients will be handed over to hospital staff immediately, there are occasions when there is delay in handing over the patient to hospital staff.
"Where there are delays, patients are dealt with in order of their clinical priority and they continue to receive appropriate care from paramedics until they are admitted."
* The average turnaround time for ambulances at Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil, above, was 44 minutes