Region’s ambulance service could need 120 more staff and 20 extra vehicles, senior manager says
The region's ambulance service could need more than 100 extra staff and 20 additional vehicles just to cope with demand in Norfolk and Waveney, a senior manager today claims.
It comes as a whistleblower within the trust last week claimed at least 40 patients died or were harmed due to delays over Christmas and New Year.
Between mid-December and early January the region's NHS came under intense pressure as demand on various services spiked.
An anonymous whistleblower claimed during that period some injured patients were left waiting for several hours for an ambulance.
It included one man who allegedly froze to death in Lowestoft after it took 16 hours for an ambulance to get to him on December 27.
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A senior manager within the East of England Ambulance Trust has today spoken about the pressure the service had been under.
Terry Hicks, sector head for Norfolk and Waveney, said additional resources had been put in place to cope with anticipated demand.
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But he claimed that hospital handover delays had 'challenged' the service, with up to 24 ambulances stuck in hospital queues on some days.
Mr Hicks said in order to cope with rising demand in Norfolk and Waveney, an additional 120 staff and up to 20 ambulances could be needed for the area.
At present, around 2,700 clinical front-line staff work for the trust across the region, with 680 of those in Norfolk and Waveney.
He said a 25pc increase in staff across the trust as a whole was needed due to demand experienced over the past three to four years.
'It's fair to say the past three weeks have probably been one of the most challenging periods we have experienced for some time,' Mr Hicks said.
'On some days we were having 24 ambulances parked outside the Norfolk and Norwich [University Hospital] unable to off-load patients.
'When you consider 24 ambulances is two-thirds of my entire fleet, then that creates a significant challenge to reach other patients who are calling us.'
However a spokesman for the hospital claims the 24 figure is 'not correct' as it is not possible to fit that many ambulances on the approach road.
Mr Hicks said there were also handover delays at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn and the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston.
'It [handover delays] is the dominant factor in that when we put five to six additional resources out every day, if all that is happening is these ambulances are waiting outside of hospital, it means some of our patients also end up waiting,' he said.
Mr Hicks said the trust was currently going through an independent review which had been commissioned by regulators, which would reveal exactly how many more staff and vehicles were needed.
'If that identifies what we think we already know, in terms of capacity gap, I am optimistic in the next three years we will be well on the way to getting that [additional resource],' he added.
Former health minister Norman Lamb said he had 'concerns' about the way the ambulance trust was being run.
The north Norfolk Liberal Democrat MP added that he would be tabling an urgent question to the speaker in parliament today on the issue.
Mr Lamb said part of the problem is that the ambulance service is judged on response targets across the region, rather than by county.
He claimed the targets create 'an incentive to invest disproportionately' in more heavily populated areas.
'If you meet a lot of calls within the standard response time in urban areas you are more likely to hit region-wide targets.
'But the problem with that is rural counties like Norfolk lose out.'
He said he was also concerned about the spend on the trust's executive car fleet 'going up'.
The trust said plans had been in place to cope with increased demand over the Christmas period.
However, it said it experienced 'extreme levels of demand over the new year period in particular'.
A spokesman said: 'The trust was unable to respond to a very small number of the 50,000 calls we handled over a 15-day period as quickly as we would like. The trust is undertaking a rigorous analysis of that small proportion of calls.'
The trust said it would not be making any further comment on the whistleblower's claims.
Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital
Richard Parker, chief operating officer at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH), said up to 180 ambulances-a-day came to the hospital at times during December and January.
'When a large number arrive at the same time it does create pressure for our service,' Mr Parker said.
'Over this challenging period of high demand we have been working closely with the ambulance service to help it keep more vehicles available to respond to emergency
'The ambulance service have told us that up to 40pc of GP-referred patients, who are flagged for ambulance transport to hospital, do not require this service which stretches this limited resource.
'One of the ways we have helped the ambulance trust is to coordinate alternative patient transport, including non-emergency ambulances, which has helped to free up the emergency ambulance crews.'
He said the NHS had been under pressure across the country due a peak in flu cases.
Norwich MP response
Norwich South MP Clive Lewis (right) said he would be 'seeking every possible avenue' to question the secretary of state on the whistleblower's claims.
The Labour MP added: 'I think people need to understand that the NHS is in a very dangerous place.
'The staff are working heroically, but they are being put under extreme pressure. I think people can see the wheels are coming off this.'
Mr Lewis said with the combination of staff shortages and the fragmentation of the NHS, 'a lot of people don't know if it [the NHS] will be there in four to five years'.
Meanwhile, Norwich North Conservative MP, Chloe Smith (below left), said she was 'concerned' to hear the whistleblower's allegations.
She said: 'The NHS has had funding for winter pressures and in particular I am pleased that one of the first actions of this government after the June election was to fund the N&N an additional £1m for our A&E which I expect to help ambulance turnaround times.'