Hundreds of patients were left waiting hours in ambulances outside hospitals in Lancaster and Morecambe Bay this winter, contravening a key NHS safety standard.
Unison said delays risk the safety of patients and are “a terrible waste” of ambulance crews’ skills.
Ambulances took 5,664 patients to emergency departments at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust (UHMBT) between December 3 and February 3, according to NHS Digital data.
Of those, 482 waited for more than an hour before A&E staff were able to take over from paramedics.
A further 941 arrivals waited between 30 and 60 minutes before they were admitted.
Despite the NHS saying a delay of just 15 minutes is a potential threat to life, 18 patients waited more than an hour in a single day when the backlog was at its most severe.
The average for UHMBT in January was a 26.2 minute wait. The overall number of delays at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay has increased considerably since 2017-18.
Over the same period last winter, 892 patients waited in ambulances for 30 minutes or more, 37 per cent fewer than this year.
Colm Porter, Unison’s national ambulance officer, said: “Handover delays are a stark illustration of the extreme pressure on the NHS caused by years of chronic underfunding. Not only are patients put at risk with lengthy waits to get into A&E, but there are also fewer ambulances available to respond to emergencies.
“Ambulance staff are stuck in hospitals when they should be out responding to life-or-death 999 calls. This is a terrible waste of their skills and the stress it causes soon takes its toll on their health.”
Foluke Ajayi, Chief Operating Officer, UHMBT said: “Delayed handovers are predominantly a result of continuing pressures within the Emergency Department due to the wait for beds.
“We are working to ensure that handovers are done as quickly as possible, so the patient can be admitted and the ambulance crew freed up to up to attend other emergencies.
“We do ensure that we admit the most urgent cases as quickly as possible; however, some people are waiting considerably longer than we would like, and we recognise this is not ideal for patients or staff.”
“How quickly people can be seen in our Emergency Departments is not just about the Emergency Department itself, but also about how rapidly patients are treated throughout our hospitals and community services.
The Society for Acute Medicine said emergency staff are only too aware that waiting in the back of an ambulance is inherently less safe for patients.
President Dr Nick Scriven said: “Staff will be forced to make horrible decisions about who gets the next space when one becomes free, fully aware that any mistakes could be catastrophic.”
NHS bosses have stressed that A&Es should always accept handover of patients within 15 minutes of arrival by ambulance.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Thanks to the hard work of ambulance and hospitals more people have benefited from a timely handover this year, despite a significant increase in people requiring care.
“We remain committed to further reducing delayed handovers, so that ambulance crews are able to get back out on the road and providing care to patients sooner.”
Across England, nearly 100,000 people waited for 30 minutes or more between December and February - one in 10 arrivals.