HEALTH chiefs have been fined £400,000 because patients were left waiting too long in ambulances.

Ambulances waited a total of 2,700 hours outside the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and Horton in Banbury, in 2010/11, with an average waiting time of 20 minutes in January.

South Central Ambulance Service fined NHS Oxfordshire, the primary care trust, £400,000 for the delays – £2.44 every minute after 15 minutes.

In 2008/09, the total amount of wasted hours was 2,400, figures released under The Freedom of Information Act show.

Yet hospital chiefs said delays had now fallen to an average of 12 minutes – less than their 15-minute national target.

Hospital trust spokesman Heather Barnett said: “We always have more patients over the winter, but we also had issues with people stuck in hospital beds because we couldn’t get them out, for example into social care.

“If patients need to be admitted and we haven’t got free beds, it creates a backlog and you end up struggling to get them through the front door.”

She said a new system to identify when patients should be discharged meant staff now had a better idea of when beds would be available.

A quarter of patients now arrive at the JR by ambulance, an increase of three per cent from the previous 12 months.

Ms Barrett said patients should question whether they really need an ambulance before dialling 999.

South Central Ambulance Service NHS Trust spokesman James Keating-Wilkes said: “We are happy that initial signs are encouraging, but need to be assured the system is robust so that delays do not occur in the winter.”

He said: “The whole thing is about providing better care to patients, both pre-hospital and in hospital.

“If an ambulance is delayed outside the hospital, it can’t be out responding to patients’ 999 calls.”

Chris Ringwood, spokesman for the North Oxfordshire Patient Voice campaign group, said: “It is a terrible waste of resources if an ambulance has to spend 45 minutes waiting for the patient to be admitted.

“But we need to look at the average wait figures rather than the rather alarmist figure of 2,700 hours wasted.”

And the group’s Oxford spokesman Jacquie Pearce-Gervis, said: “It’s not like years ago when there used to be ambulances stacking up in the road.”

The hospital trust has struggled to discharge patients quickly enough and Oxfordshire County Council has been blamed for not having services to take on elderly patients.

But council spokesman Marcus Mabberley said: “Only a small fraction of the current delays in Oxfordshire are down to people waiting for a solely council-funded place in a residential home or nursing home to become available.”