Labour’s Andy Burnham calls for “full independent investigation” into East of England ambulance downgrading report

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire.

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

The shadow health secretary on Tuesday called for an 'full independent investigation' into an East of England Ambulance Service report into why more than 8,000 999 calls were re-graded between December 2013 and February last year.

Andy Burnham told the House of Commons that withholding ambulances from terminally ill people was 'the most cruel form of rationing' imaginable, after it found that 57 people died during the two-month period of call downgrading.

But Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt accused Mr Burnham of 'scaremongering' and told the opposition to 'get behind the ambulance service' and not politicise the issue.

On Thursday, the East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) published a two-page summary of a much-delayed report into how and why more than 8,000 emergency calls were re-graded between December 2013 and February 2014.

The full report, which was released on Monday, details how a small group of staff downgraded thousands of calls, against Department of Health guidelines, without telling the board or management.

The ambulance report did not look at all 8,300 calls affected over the two months, when call codes were changed, because of 'the high number of incidents involved'.

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Instead, 3,600 of the cases have been reviewed and no harm to patients was identified because of the downgrading, but 57 people died during that two-month period.

During a monthly health question session in the House of Commons, Mr Burnham told MPs the 'knock on' impact of the Accident and Emergency crisis in the ambulance service was 'more serious than people realise'.

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He accused ambulance services of 'unilaterally' abandoning national standards, and putting patients at risk.

He said: 'The report covered only a sample, but that report showed 57 of patients died after a decision was taken not to send an ambulance. 'Withholding ambulances from terminally ill people is the most cruel form of rationing imaginable, Will he today order a full independent investigation into how this happened.'

But Jeremy Hunt said that the Government did investigate deaths and adverse incidents very carefully and the East of England Ambulance Service had got £3.6 million of extra support to help them this winter. 'Let's look at the facts of what is happening in the ambulance service because year on year if you look at the most serious category A cause, calls that need to be answered within eight minutes, they have increased by 26pc over one year. The number of ambulances dispatched within eight minutes has increased 22pc...that is a record of an ambulance service doing very well under pressure. He should be getting behind the ambulance service and not trying to politcise the issue.

But in his setpiece attack on the health secretary Mr Burnham said: 'I raised a serious issue that came to light last night regarding 57 terminally ill patients, but that was only a sample, it is not the full story. I am surprised he did not answer that serious question about a serious failure in the East of England Ambulance Service.'

Mr Hunt said: 'The last thing those doctors and nurses want on the front is scaremongering by the right honourable gentlemen.'

Adding: 'Stop trying to weaponise the NHS.'

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