Health minister Eluned Morgan has rejected calls to declare an emergency in the Welsh Ambulance Service but said she recognises it is under "immense pressure".

She told the Senedd today she was not "ducking" responsibility for managing the crisis, which she described as "worse than anything we've seen hitherto".

The minister said current ambulance callouts were up to 30 per cent higher than this time last year, with around one-in-five calls to paramedics coronavirus-related.

Increased demand has led to patient handover delays at hospitals' emergency departments and these have been made worse by "resource constraints due to the continued impact of the pandemic", Morgan told the Senedd this afternoon.

Meanwhile, paramedics who have worked throughout the pandemic are exhausted, she said, adding: "Welsh ambulance staff have been working to their limit, and often going beyond what could be reasonably expected of them over the course of the pandemic. And of course, that is impacting on staff morale and well-being."

The minister was speaking at a Senedd debate that had been called for by the Welsh Conservatives, and members shared accounts of their constituents' long waits for ambulances to arrive.

They included a woman in Abererch who had to wait for 15 hours for paramedics, a man in Swansea who had a suspected stroke at a pub and had to be taken to hospital by the landlady because "there was no ambulance available", and in Aberconwy a 96-year-old who waited eight hours for an ambulance "only then to be stuck outside A&E for a further six hours, due to the practice of ambulance stacking".

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There was cross-party praise for the members of the Welsh Ambulance Service but Senedd members raised concerns about systemic problems and "bottlenecks" that added to waiting times.

Conservative MS Altaf Hussain, a former surgeon, said "ambulance response times are an indicator of system failure, and that our staff, who are exceptionally capable, are now being let down by a health and care system that is badly configured, where patient care is being compromised by long waits to be connected, long waits in our ambulances outside the hospital, and long waits in the A&E department to be assessed".

Labour MS Mike Hedges, meanwhile, said people turned to the ambulance service and the emergency department because "it's the only place you can guarantee to see a doctor".

He added: "After several days of failing to see their GP, patients go to A&E for the long queue, but knowing at the end of that long queue, a doctor will see them."

The health minister told the Senedd current ambulance pressures were "not an issue that is unique to Wales".

"We've seen recent announcements in England, in Scotland, and there is a need to explore all of the possible avenues of support to maintain safe delivery of care and health services," she added.

Morgan said it would not be "appropriate" for the Welsh Government to declare an emergency in the ambulance service, but "of course we accept there is a problem here that needs to be resolved".

The Welsh Ambulance Service is considering "a number of options" to boost capacity, she added, including bringing in the military and St John Ambulance Cymru to support paramedics.

But she acknowledged the problem of ambulance waiting times outside hospitals went beyond the ambulance service.

"It's also about trying to make sure we address the issue of getting people out of the back door of hospitals once they have been seen," she told the Senedd. "That's why we are hosting a weekly meeting now with the WLGA (the Welsh Local Government Association), with health boards, to address this issue of how we can give more support to get people out of hospital so we can get people through the front door of hospitals, because at the moment there is undoubtedly a blockage at the back door. That is absolutely the priority that I'm working on at the moment."

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