‘No stone left unturned’ in crisis summit over ambulance service held behind closed doors

Public meeting at the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket, over NHS challenges. Pictured is Andy Yacoub (CE

Public meeting at the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket, over NHS challenges. Pictured is Andy Yacoub (CEO Healthwatch Suffolk). Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

Top NHS executives met behind closed doors to probe 'shocking' delays at the region's ambulance service which may have led to a man freezing to death.

East of England Ambulance Service. Picture: James Bass

East of England Ambulance Service. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2011

Held today (Tuesday) - away from scrutiny of the public and the press - the risk summit looked into the hours upon hours of delays patients faced over Christmas and New Year, where hospitals were inundated with patients and ambulances were left queuing outside emergency departments.

But tonight NHS England, which jointly organised the summit with NHS Improvement, as well as the East of England Ambulance Trust (EEAST) remained tight-lipped over what was discussed or what actions were to be taken.

A statement from NHS England said an action plan had been agreed, but did not reveal details.

MORE: Elderly man with broken hip strapped hot water bottles to his legs to stay warm while waiting 13 hours for an ambulanceAndy Yacoub, chief executive of watchdog Healthwatch Suffolk, attended on behalf of all Healthwatch groups in the EEAST area - which covers six counties.

He said chairman Dr Paul Watson, the NHS England regional director for the East and Midlands, had left 'no stone unturned' in tackling the crisis seen over winter.

But he added the rarity of the summits - which are only held in the most extreme circumstances - showed 'an indication of how serious this is'.

Around 26 people from across the health system were invited, including from the regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and from some hospitals.

MORE: Taxis used by ambulance trust to take patients to A&E as pressure on NHS continuesAnd Mr Yacoub said although it was called to discuss EEAST, other providers had been asked for explanations too.

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'This is a system-wide issue,' he said. 'So whilst there were some difficult questions asked of the ambulance trust, answers were sought from the rest of the group too.'

He added: 'Very much of the focus of the meeting was the chairman kept coming back to this being about patient safety. The second things which was really important was around the welfare of the people who work at the trust and their ability to do what they need to do.'

MORE: Nearly 500 ambulances waited more than an hour to handover patients over 'extremely busy' weekendWhile he could not reveal what outcomes were decided, he said: 'I imagine depending on who you ask who was there, they will say it went in different ways. In a general way [Dr Watson] was looking for immediate things, as well as medium-term and long-term.'

The summit was called for by health minister Stephen Barclay, after allegations came to light from a senior whistleblower within the trust, which included the case of 57-year-old Anthony Barnard.

MORE: Prime minister says lessons will be learned after whistleblower exposed concerns at ambulance serviceMr Barnard was found dead outside his home in Priors Close, Lowestoft, on December 28. He had waited 18 hours for an ambulance and allegedly froze to death.

Allegations made by the whistleblower that up to 80 people could have been harmed or died due to delays over a three-week period were raised in the House of Commons by MPs from across all three parties - Clive Lewis, the Labour MP for Norwich South, Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, and Peter Aldous, the Conservative representative for Waveney.

On Friday Mr Lamb, who previously branded the delays as 'shocking', will call for a debate in parliament on the delays as well as the leadership at EEAST.

'Tip of the iceberg'

A union leader has said delays at EEAST are just 'the tip of the iceberg'.

Dave Powell, GMB regional officer said: 'GMB members working in front line services like ambulance and A&E are often at their wits end to help patients.

'The recent tragic deaths involving delays in ambulance response times in the east of England are merely the tip of the iceberg.

'The NHS and social care are now at complete breaking point and require extra funds now.

'The cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have decimated social care, meaning that care packages are not in place for those who need them. This leads to a lack of beds on wards, which puts huge pressure on A&E units resulting in ambulances waiting in queues.

'Every ambulance in a queue is an ambulance off the road. Any ambulance off the road, is a delay in responding to urgent calls, that unfortunately can lead to the death of a patient. '