Increasing use of private ambulances to answer 999 calls in Suffolk and Essex is revealed
- Credit: Archant
Health chiefs say spending more money on private ambulances is necessary despite failing to hit response times for the most seriously-ill or injured patients.
An investigation by this newspaper can reveal that the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust (EEAST) has paid private companies and voluntary organisations £28.1million to attend all types of emergency calls over the past three years.
Response times figures from EEAST for the year-to-date for January show that targets for Red 1 and Red 2 calls – for the most seriously-ill and injured patients – are being missed. Red 1 is at 68% and Red 2 is at just 60%.
Ambulance trusts are expected to reach those patients in eight minutes or less in 75% of cases.
Last night, Dr Dan Poulter, MP for North Ipswich and Central Suffolk, said it was very 'concerning' to hear that private ambulances respond to all types of 999 calls.
'There is no reason why private ambulances cannot be used for routine hospital transfers and taking patients home after a stay in hospital, however that's a very different matter to using private ambulances for emergency calls,' he added.
'I have concerns about the ability for EEAST to effectively co-ordinate and use private ambulances to respond to 999 calls in the same way that NHS ambulances can in a timely manner.
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'Yet again, what this flags up for me, is the ongoing failure of the senior management at the trust to invest sufficiently in additional ambulances that are badly needed as well as the additional trained paramedics to staff them.
'If we want to improve response times in the long term, private ambulances which are expensive, are not the answer.'
In 2015/16, the bill for private ambulances was £4.8m but it rocketed to £10.19m for the first nine months of the 2016/17 financial year.
And spending on voluntary ambulance services has fallen from £1.8m in 2015/16 to £1.2m for the first three quarters of this financial year.
Contractors include private firms and charities such as St John Ambulance, British Red Cross, Thames Ambulance and Private Ambulance Service.
Private ambulance providers are regulated by the Care Quality Commission.
The College of Paramedics said there were problems recruiting and retaining sufficient staff, who now have to be trained to degree level.
UNISON regional manager Tim Roberts said: 'UNISON is concerned about the amount of public money spent on private ambulance services.'
He questioned whether staff were trained to the same standard as NHS trusts, adding: 'The problem in the east of England is that the ambulance trust does not have enough trained staff to respond to the increased demand from the public.
'We believe if the trust invested more in efforts to recruit and retain staff it won't have to be so reliant on private ambulance services.'
A spokesman for EEAST said the use of private ambulance services 'varies according to our needs' and are used by the majority of UK services.
'It allows us to respond to patients as quickly as possible with an ambulance. Its use decreased, for instance, in November, however due to the Trust seeing an unprecedented demand through December this had to be increased to ensure the best service possible.'
He added: 'The primary focus of our service is to provide a safe and effective service and utilise private ambulance services to ensure more ambulances are available to respond and that patients with life-threatening conditions are responded to as quickly as possible.'
When asked if there is a problem recruiting and retaining staff to man EEAST ambulances, the spokesman said: 'Currently there is a national shortage of paramedics, something every ambulance trust is working against.
'We, like every ambulance service, are looking at every possible way to recruit into EEAST, which will support our current staff.
'In addition we are working with our commissioners and regulators to see how we can better bridge the capacity gap that exists – the gap between what we are funded for and what we need to meet demand.'
EEAST has 173 rapid response vehicles and 323 ambulances in operation across the region.