More ambulances arriving at North Devon District Hospital are having to wait for prolonged periods of time before handing patients over.

Figures obtained by the North Devon Gazette showed 753 ambulances had to wait more than 30 minutes to hand patients over to the Barnstaple hospital in 2017 – the highest figure in five years.

There were 684 delayed handovers in 2013, dropping as low as 276 the following year.

Since 2014, the number of delays has steadily increase, rising to 377 in 2015 and 632 in 2016.

Andy Ibbs, interim chief executive at Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust (NDHT), said the figures reflected a nationwide increasing demand for services across the NHS.

He added: “This winter, we have seen more people needing an ambulance and admission to hospital than ever before.

“Our staff work phenomenally hard to support our patients.

“Our community teams support around 2,500 people at any one time to stay well at home, which is really important for avoiding unnecessary hospital admissions.

“We have a dedicated group who meet regularly to identify ways to better manage how patients move through our services, and as part of this, we worked with South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust ahead of the winter period to review the ambulance handover process and identify areas to improve.

“When demand on our services is high, the public can help by thinking carefully about whether the most appropriate NHS service for their needs could be a minor injuries unit, their local GP or pharmacy, or the NHS 111 helpline.

“Our emergency department is for serious and life-threatening situations.”

Until the 2016/17 financial year, NDHT paid financial penalties for every delayed handover.

The trust paid £293,200 in penalties back to Northern Eastern and Western Devon Clinical Commissioning Group (NEW Devon CCG) between 2013 and 2016, before a ‘fixed value contract’ was agreed.

A statement from the NHS in Devon said it was now working to find solutions, rather than applying penalties.

It said: “In previous years, acute hospital trusts have been subject to penalties where ambulances had experienced handover delays. These penalties have then been reinvested in to ambulance services.

“However, the Devon Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) sees NHS and local authority partners now working more closely together than ever before.

“As a result of this closer working, the system works in partnership to find solutions to address these delays and aims to prevent them from happening, rather than applying penalties or fines.”