Patients spent nearly 30,000 hours waiting to be transferred from ambulances to hospital departments in December, new figures from West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) show.

The region’s congested emergency departments have led to increases for the fourth month in a row – with the figure predicted to be higher still for January.

A meeting of WMAS’s board was told that patient handover delays remain above their pre-pandemic average of 7,000 hours, having risen gradually since the autumn during over a busy winter period.

“Patient handover delays have continued to increase since August, meaning increased hours lost to operational activity results in patient harm and the impact of these delays resulting in long patient waiting times also causes harm, including death,” a joint report presented by Nick Henry, the trust’s Paramedic Practice & Patient Safety Director said.

“Hospital handover delays have not returned to pre-pandemic levels and so continue to impact on patients waiting in the community.

“We have continued to work across the regional and national health systems by contributing to joint meetings on patient flow, reducing hospital handover delays and improving the responses to our patients,” he added.

The issue is reflected by ambulance services nationally, with ambulance bosses attributing the problems to increasing demand amid workforce gaps across health and social care, leading to a bottleneck of patients waiting to be discharged due to a lack of available community based care services.

The report added that WMAS has put in place extra measures to manage higher levels of staff stress linked to handover delays, due to increased late finishes and missed breaks.

Staff sickness within WMAS was running at higher than normal levels, with a sickness figure of 9.26% for December described as “disappointing”. The main causes were given as colds and flu, along with gastro-intestinal complaints.

“Areas that remain key focus’ for the Trust are patient and staff safety, that include wellbeing issues related to continuing hospital handover delays, ” the report added.

“The resulting long waiting times for patients to be handed over are causing ongoing harm to patients, impacting patients waiting in the community for an ambulance response and resulting in staff not finishing shift on time, that further impacts patients the following day due to a requirement for 11-hour breaks between shifts for staff.”