A whistleblower warned in October that a toxic culture at the region's ambulance service was leading to an increased risk of suicides.

%image(14633315, type="article-full", alt="Three staff members have died suddenly at the EEAST in the last two weeks, prompting staff to speak out about the pressures they face. Photo: Archant")

Three staff at the East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) died suddenly between November 11 and 21, prompting ambulance chiefs to set up a helpline.

An email sent by EEAST chief operating officer Marcus Bailey to staff last week said: "We know that many of you will feel shocked and distressed.

"We have extended our sympathies and provided immediate support of the families and friends at this difficult time."

It added that the EEAST was doing "everything we can" to give staff support.

%image(14400109, type="article-full", alt="Norman Lamb said there was a "toxic" culture at the EEAST. Picture: Jamie Honeywood")

But three sources disputed that and said the Trust's HR department, which included a staff wellbeing team, was recently cut.

One former manager said the HR department had been "slashed".

Another source said the loss of staff in the Trust's wellbeing team meant it was not possible to manage the number of cases being referred to them.

"The team had several trained staff to deal with a range of crises which EEAST staff may contact them with," they said. "A lot of the time, the team were able to signpost to specialist services but some members of staff were able to be managed by the team itself."

%image(14644746, type="article-full", alt="Luke Wright, 24, from Norwich died on November 10 2019. Picture: Wright Family")

The EEAST said two members had been cut from the welfare team as part of a "re-alignment of our services" but four people were still in post.

They said the money saved was invested in "more effective services that meet staff needs such as counselling and post-traumatic stress disorder support".

They added: "We will continue to work with staff and volunteers to assess, refine and promote our welfare initiatives to ensure that they have access to the most appropriate resources for their needs, when and where they need them."

A company called PAM Group is being used by the Trust to try to reduce staff sickness, which is at more than 6pc, and give wellbeing support.

%image(14640544, type="article-full", alt="The East Anglia Ambulance Service sent 14 ambulances to the scene. Photo: EEAST")

The Trust also said it had a team of chaplains and 150 people to help staff manage traumatic stress.

But one former manager said: "The issue is that the culture doesn't allow people to speak up.

"Managers keep pushing people to do more and absence is frowned upon.

"It is just a toxic place to work throughout the senior management.

"Something needs to happen to look after staff."

In October the website Ambulance News Desk reported on a letter from a whistleblower warning of "psychological abuse" of staff.

The whistleblower wrote: "I have a genuine concern that if this situation continues then the risk of suicide and increase risk to patients will result in reputational damage to the NHS and potential loss of life."

It was sent to then North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, as well as regulator the Care Quality Commission and the interim chief executive of the EEAST Dorothy Hosein.

Mr Lamb said the Trust now needed to consider carrying out an investigation.

"For three people working on the front line to lose their lives within such a short space of time is deeply shocking," he said.

"It does raise a question as to whether there needs to be a thorough internal investigation.

"I am conscious that people have complained about a toxic culture in this trust. I've been appalled by some of the behaviours that I've seen in the organisation."

The three staff members have been named as Luke Wright, 24, from Norwich, and paramedics Christopher Gill and Richard Grimes.

The website Emergency Services News has been collecting responses from EEAST staff following the deaths.

One said: "There is a general feeling that the Trust's wellbeing provisions, while well-intentioned, are not met by an equivalent empathetic culture from management - who seem more concerned with sickness rates and harassing staff for updates on their absence."

Another said: "The mileage that the crews and cars cover are horrendous and dangerous."

For support visit www.norfolkandwaveneymind.org.uk. Alternatively call the Samaritans' 24/7 free helpline on 116123 or visit www.samaritans.org