Top doctors have raised the alarm over the quality of patient care in emergency departments across the UK as they warned that long waits in A&Es were causing “very real” risks to people’s lives.

Long A&E waits are a “national scandal” which are causing “entirely preventable” deaths, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) said.

Elderly people are facing the brunt of the risk because many of them face long waits for a bed once they are admitted to hospital, the college said.

It comes as the RCEM produced a snapshot survey of more than a quarter of emergency department heads from across the UK, conducted between Monday and Wednesday this week.

Ambulance response categories explained

Nine in 10 (91%) of the 63 department heads said they felt patients were “coming into harm” in their department due to the quality of care that can be delivered under current conditions.

Some 87% said they had patients being treated in corridors and 68% said they had patients waiting in ambulances outside their A&E.

One emergency department leader said that one of their patients this week spent more than 19 hours waiting for a hospital bed to become available after a decision was made to admit them. Overall, the patient spent more than 25 hours in A&E.

250 deaths a week linked to long waits in A&E departments in 2023

Previous analysis by the college suggests that 250 deaths a week are linked to long waits in A&E departments which it compared to an “aeroplane full of people every seven days”.

The RCEM has written to the major political parties calling for action.

In the letter shared with the PA news agency, RCEM president Dr Adrian Boyle says the situation is “nothing short of a national scandal” as he called for specific commitments to address problems in A&Es.

The survey shows “the level of harm and risk our patients are being exposed to, as recently as yesterday”, Dr Boyle said.

He added: “These responses reveal the true and shameful reality of the state of emergency care in the UK.

“Last year the deaths of more than 250 people a week were associated with long waits in Emergency Departments – that’s equivalent of aeroplane full of people every seven days.

“These deaths are entirely preventable if long waits before admission were addressed and eradicated.

“But as the political parties detail their plans and commitments ahead of the General Election, we have yet to see one specific policy in any manifesto aimed at tacking this scandalous and shameful situation.

“The risk to patients’ lives is very real, it is very serious and is happening right now. People are dying, and all we have from those hoping to form the next government is a deafening silence on this issue, which really is a matter of life and death.”

In their manifestos ahead of the general election, taking place on July 4, both Labour and the Conservatives have pledged to meet NHS targets.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has also committed to getting the four-hour A&E waiting time target back on track under a Labour government.

National A&E target not met in England since 2015

There is a national target for 95% of people who go to A&E to be admitted, transferred or sent home within four hours.

The target has not been met since July 2015 in England. The latest figures show that 74% of patients were seen within four hours in A&Es last month.

Some 42,555 people had to wait more than 12 hours in A&E departments in England in May from a decision to admit to actually being admitted, up slightly from 42,078 in April.

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In December 2022, the record high for a calendar month was reached at 54,573.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak joined a debate with Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, Scotland’s First Minister John Swinney and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey in a BBC Question Time special.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “24 Hours In A&E was a TV programme, under the Tories it’s a grim reality for patients.

“Labour has a plan to make sure the NHS is there for us when we need it in an emergency.

“We’ll fix the front door of the NHS by bringing back the family doctor, so patients aren’t forced to A&E because they can’t get a GP appointment. We will also unclog the system, getting social care and the NHS working together to cut the number of patients stuck in hospital beds who are well enough to leave.”

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Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper added: “It’s completely unacceptable that patient safety is being put at risk because of long A&E waiting times.

“This is a crisis which the Conservatives have let spiral out of control, leaving so many vulnerable people at risk.

“The Conservative government’s failure to invest in community and social care has left A&Es across the country picking up the pieces, putting patients in danger and costing tax payers more.

“Across the country people deserve better. Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to fix the NHS and ensure people can access the care they need when they need it.”