AMBULANCES have spent thousands of hours in queues waiting to offload patients at hospitals due to the pressures of Covid-19.

South East Coast Ambulance Service (Secamb) spent 7,803 hours queuing outside hospitals in December - up from 5,732 hours in 2019, according to data leaked to BBC News.

It means ambulance waiting times outside hospitals in the South East have risen by more than a third, compared with the same month last year.

On Boxing Day, the Secamb said it experienced "unprecedented levels of demand".

The ambulance trust, which covers Sussex as well as Kent and Surrey, asked the public only to call 999 after considering "all other options".

Yesterday Secamb tweeted that staff are doing "everything they can" to get to calls quickly, as people are also having to wait longer for ambulances to arrive.

Vice President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine Adrian Boyle told the BBC that paramedics waiting outside hospitals could not respond to other emergencies, and described the situation as "the worst winter crisis" he has ever seen.

He said: "It is not because more ambulances are being called, it's because the amount of time they're spending outside a hospital has increased.

"People may feel they have a winter crisis every year but this is a different order of magnitude.

"This is the worst winter crisis I've been through in my 25 years of practising as a doctor."

It comes after a major incident was declared by the Sussex Resilience Forum (SRF) on Wednesday  in response to the pressures of Covid-19 on the county.

The SRF, which co-ordinates and communicates between health, emergency services and local authorities, said volunteer help could be used to increase capacity.

A spokesman said: "A major incident is a recognition of national demand and puts all agencies in Sussex in the best possible position to come together to tackle the virus.

"It is a well-recognised and rehearsed escalation that can be expected at times of exceptional need – a major incident was also in place during the summer of 2020.

"The SRF decision recognised the strong and connected pressures across the entire health and care system, from 999 calls to hospital admissions, clinical treatment, discharge from hospital, community services and provision in care homes.

"SRF partners are satisfied that they are currently managing the extra demands on the system but agree that they must now make plans for the likelihood that pressures will increase still further in coming weeks.