Ambulance Watch: 999 chiefs leave hundreds of front-line posts vacant for years while spending millions of pounds on private ambulances and staff overtime
Ambulance chiefs have today been criticised for leaving hundreds of front-line posts empty – while failing to meet response targets and being repeatedly criticised for letting patients down.
In a move branded 'irrational' by a health minister, figures from a Freedom of Information request show the East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) left up to 10pc of its front-line jobs vacant and at the same time spent millions of pounds on private ambulances and staff overtime.
In 2011, 207 front-line posts were vacant – 9.7pc of front-line jobs – and last month more than 10pc remained unfilled. The figures undermine recent boasts from ambulance bosses about recruiting 350 new front-line jobs - because 239 of them will actually be to fill existing vacancies.
Health minister and north Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said today: 'For a significant period of last year they had a recruitment freeze which I find quite extraordinary.
'We know over the same period they had massive use of private ambulances at an enormous cost.
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'As far as I can see it is irrational. They knew they had a growing crisis last year. Why did they leave these places vacant? Why did they allow this to carry on for so long?'
The ambulance service today refused to comment on why more than 200 vacancies had been left unfilled.
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It did, however, confirm that 44 of 200 front-line jobs announced in January were new posts.
The lack of action to fill the roles of paramedics and emergency care assistants comes at the same time as failings within the service, highlighted by the EDP's Ambulance Watch campaign, have let patients down.
On April 25 the EDP reported how Wymondham grandmother Isabel Carter died after waiting for four hours for an ambulance.
And an inquest in January heard how a Brandon veterinary nurse's chances of survival were 'substantially reduced' by 'systematic and individual failings' within the ambulance service.
At the same time as leaving the vacancies empty, the trust has spent more than £20m on overtime and private ambulances in a year, while needing to save £50m in five years.
As reported in the EDP on April 16, the service spent more than £12m in 2012 on staff overtime.
On April 5 the EDP reported that in the last financial year £8,860,626 was spent on private ambulances.
The pressure on front-line staff working longer hours to make up for shortages has also been put down to high staff sickness levels by unions. Staff sickness rates at the ambulance service are around 10pc.
Denise Burke, from the North Norfolk Labour Party and Act on Ambulances campaign said: 'It is a very embarrassing situation. I am not surprised by the latest revelations. We took the latest announcement with a pinch of salt because we have had promises made by Andrew Morgan (interim chief executive) before.'
Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey said patients needed to be assured that the move to recruit 350 front-line staff did not involve 'double counting'.
She called for the recruitment process to be open and transparent.
• A mother who attempted to resuscitate her baby while waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance has said more front-line staff should be recruited by the trust.
The EDP highlighted the tragedy of three-month-old Bella Hellings last Friday. Her mother Amy Carter said she received instructions over the phone on how to resuscitate her child, who had a heart condition, when she fell ill on March 11 at their home in Thetford. Miss Carter, 24, said an ambulance arrived after 30 minutes but then appeared to get lost as it made its way to West Suffolk Hospital.
Responding to news that the ambulance service has left more than 10pc of its front-line vacancies unfilled, she said: 'They do need more staff. The whole system is wrong. It is not the paramedics' fault.'
Miss Carter is now taking legal advice.
Her solicitor Sharon Allison said: 'It's impossible to imagine the terror and anguish of Bella's parents as they went through delay after delay in trying to get urgent treatment for their baby.
'It's every parent's nightmare. Amy and her partner, Scott Hellings, are still in shock and the grief is still very raw, but they are desperate to find out how their child's death could have happened.'
It is understood that Miss Carter's 999 call was categorised by the trust as an A8, meaning that the target response time was eight minutes.
The inquest into Bella's death was opened on March 22 and the ambulance service is investigating the death.