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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Wheels coming off

by New Worker correspondent

BRITAIN’S ambulance services are in deep trouble according to NHS trade unions. Unite, which represents many paramedics, warns that that unprecedented demand is resulting in the “wheels being on the verge of falling off” the ambulance service.

It claims that that if the UK has a flu epidemic or a prolonged period of cold winter weather, the service will not be able to cope.

The biggest problem concerns ambulance turnaround times at hospitals. In extreme cases, ambulance crews report that they have had to care for patients in an ambulance for 12 hours and in some cases for 18 hours before they were transferred to the hospital. Ambulances are supposed to transport people to hospital but all too often on arrival they become temporary wards because of a shortage of bed-space at hospitals.

Unite claims that many ambulance drivers report that huge amounts of their working time is being lost, often on a daily basis, in the delays of transferring patients to hospitals.

In some Trusts, to cut turnaround times, paramedics are being taken out of ambulances and used as Hospital Ambulance Liaison Officers (HALOs) and required to look after up as many as six patients, often for several hours, before they are admitted to hospital.

A further delay is caused by some hospitals only having the same number of trolleys as cubicles in a ward, which prevents the ambulance from transferring a patient until a trolley is vacated.


To make matters worse, some ambulance Trusts only operate the minimum number of vehicles. This results in crews frequently starting their shifts but not being able to respond to calls as no other vehicles are available because another crew is still using the vehicle.

Old and poorly maintained vehicles are also putting further pressure on the service. Many vehicles have between 300,000—400,000 on the clock, and frequently breakdown and are off the road. A lack of mechanics in many trusts does not help matters.

Unite’s national officer for health, Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, warns: “As other sectors in the NHS buckle under the strain of demand, the ambulance service does not just become an essential service it becomes a service of last resort for the sick. Measures being put in place to cut turnaround times are disturbing and potentially dangerous. In the short-term all ambulance trusts must ensure they have sufficient vehicles and that they keep them on the road.”

He concluded by insisting that: “The problems facing the ambulance service are a direct consequence of the long-term underfunding of the entire NHS and until those issues are fixed the crisis in the ambulance service will not be resolved.”

In Sussex, rival union GMB has warned against the dangers of a proposed “disastrous privatisation” of non-emergency patient transport after an earlier dire experience of privatisation, which has only just been put right.

The union has reminded the county’s Clinical Commission Group (CCG) of their previous experience with Coperforma, a company which had such a bad record it was forced to dissolve itself.

cheap as ...

Fearing that a “cheap as chips” bid will be accepted as the contract goes out to tender again, GMB Regional Organiser, Gary Palmer, reminded the CCG that: “During the Coperforma years patients were uncollected and missed or were late for vital oncology and renal appointments, leading to stress and health complications for them and their families.

“Hospitals were even forced to make their own arrangement to discharge patients.”

During that time: “workers desperately tried to deliver a service whilst often unpaid — forking out for fuel from their own pockets just to stay on the road, having vehicles repossessed as they worked and finding their pensions unpaid and stolen.”

He added that: “GMB members and front-line staff work incredibly hard to get this contract back from the point of collapse to where it should be,” and deplored the fact that: “Our problem is after all the hard work by everyone else to re-burnish the Sussex PTS [Patient Transport Service] silver, the CCGs want to try to sell it off once more.”

North of the border the same sad story is being repeated. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has shown that Scotland’s ambulance service is so short of staff that it failed to cover more than 42,000 shifts. Overwork means that paramedics and ambulance staff are having to take more time off sick due to anxiety, stress and depression, which of course only makes things even worse.

The same problem about delays at hospitals that Unite highlighted is an increasingly common problem. In 2016, there were 7,215 cases where a turnaround took more than an hour, which rose to 9,934 in 2017 and to 13,010 in 2018. There were 11,730 in the first nine months of 2019, pointing to another yearly increase. The biggest hospital in Scotland, the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, was the source of 39 per cent of such delays.

In Wales the Health Minister Vaughan made a similar point when he said to the Welsh Assembly that Mr Gething told Assembly Members in a statement: “I am concerned about the deterioration in ambulance patient handover performance over recent months.”