A surge of non-urgent calls to Ambulance Victoria sparked a “code red” declaration, with the influx of call-outs blamed on COVID-19 and a shortage of paramedics.
Ambulance Victoria took the extraordinary step of telling people not to call triple zero unless it was an emergency on Monday night, as the mercury remained well above 20 degrees across the city.
At the time, paramedics were dealing with a high volume of non-urgent calls in metropolitan Melbourne and those patients were instead told to contact NURSE-ON-CALL or visit their GP.
While all critically unwell Code 1 patients had their ambulance requests answered in a timely manner, many non-urgent Code 2 and 3 cases experienced delays and were provided care over the phone.
Victorian Ambulance Union general secretary Danny Hill said the “massive surge” in demand meant up to 130 cases were pending at the busiest point of the night.
It led to the code red declaration, the same level hit during an episode of thunderstorm asthma four years ago.
Ten people died during or soon after the thunderstorm asthma event in Melbourne on November 21 in 2016, with about 1400 people also treated in hospital.
“This is not an unprecedented event,” Mr Hill told 3AW on Tuesday.
“It’s unprecedented in that it’s not really tied to anything other than a massive surge in workload.”
The union boss suggested it was likely people had been unable or neglected to see their GP over the lockdown-riddled year.
“The flow-on effect is that things hit crisis point and people end up calling an ambulance,” he said.
“You see that play out with massive amounts of cases.
“With the greatest of respect to patients who were unwell, some of these things might have been preventable.”
There had been a spike in paramedics’ workload in recent months as restrictions eased across the state, Mr Hill said, particularly in Melbourne, Bendigo and Ballarat.
The union boss said a reliance on his members working “massive amounts of overtime” had developed to make up for a shortage of staff.
“We just don’t have enough paramedics to cover (Monday’s) scenario,” Mr Hill said.
“So when you have a big event like last night combined with paramedics who are too fatigued to go on … it hits crisis point.”
The state opposition seized on Monday night’s delays, saying it demonstrated the state’s health system was in crisis.
“The ambulance system failed when Victorians needed it most,” Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien told reporters on Tuesday.
“We simply don’t have enough ambulances and paramedics.”
In a statement, Ambulance Victoria said Monday night’s surge was a timely reminder for people to stay on top of their health post-lockdown.
“We also encourage the community to check in with their GP and local pharmacist to ensure their medications are up to date.”