Community transport groups are struggling to cope

Voluntary driver John Cushing with one of Beccles and Bungay Area Community Transport’s wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Voluntary driver John Cushing with one of Beccles and Bungay Area Community Transport's wheelchair accessible vehicles. - Credit: Archant

Two north Suffolk community transport groups have called for action from the NHS as they struggle to cope with the rising demand of passengers needing to attend hospital appointments.

The Beccles and Bungay Area Community Transport (BACT) and the Halesworth Volunteer Centre were set up to provide transport to people who do not have easy access to other forms of public transport to allow them to go shopping, visit relatives or attend important appointments with health professionals.

However, both groups say they have faced an increase in demands for hospital transport since the NHS in Suffolk and Norfolk introduced the single point of assessment in 2011, putting an end to the days when patients were given free access to hospital transport to their appointments by asking their GPs. As a result, hundreds of people with no access to other forms of transport are turning to community transport operators to find a way of attending their appointments.

Debbie Blowers, BACT manager, said: 'The demand for hospital transport is out of control. It is putting a huge strain on resources, which is simply not sustainable. The ramifications are that our budgets will run short and those who need transport for essential tasks such as shopping, paying bills, attending appointments or even to take part in social activities will get pushed down the priority list in favour of those needing to get to hospital.

'Our volunteer drivers are becoming fed-up as they are spending so much time at hospitals which is not what they signed up to do and it certainly isn't only what community transport services were set up to do, but is increasingly now our main activity with no extra funding to do it.

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'The NHS is taking advantage of the good nature of community transport schemes throughout Norfolk and Suffolk who do not like to let anyone down. However, the passenger requests for hospital work are putting a strain on the schemes, their employees and their wonderful volunteers and we are at the stage of not knowing where else to turn to.'

BACT figures show that the number of people using the service to go to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital has risen from about 100 per month to 180 since the beginning of the year, while journeys to the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston have risen from 80 per month to nearly 200. And figures from Halesworth Volunteer Centre show journeys have risen from 465 between April and September 2012, to 709 between April and September this year.

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Suffolk Community Transport, an umbrella group set up to support the county's individual community transport operators, has been involved in talks with the NHS and further discussions are planned later this month.

Andy Evans, chief executive of HealthEast, said: 'NHS Great Yarmouth and Waveney Clinical Commissioning Group, locally known as HealthEast, is responsible for planning and commissioning patient transport services.

'This is for patients who need clinical support during their journeys, and who are unable to travel by other means. The service is provided locally by the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust since April 1 this year. It's delivered in line with national eligibility criteria set by the Department of Health. Patients who do not meet the criteria may be eligible for financial help with the cost of their journey.

'We know that concerns have been growing among community transport groups about increasing pressure on their services, and we are arranging a meeting, together with representatives from EEAST, to discuss how we can work together.'

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