Ambulance service merger on cards

AMBULANCE services in the region could be merged into one giant operation covering six counties under a new proposal.The super-sized service is one of the plans being considered in a Government-initiated review of ambulance trusts.

AMBULANCE services in the region could be merged into one giant operation covering six counties under a new proposal.

The super-sized service is one of the plans being considered in a Government-initiated review of ambulance trusts.

If given the go-ahead, the existing East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust, which covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and the Essex Ambulance Service NHS Trust would disappear.

Instead, they would be combined with the service covering Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire to create a six county regional service.

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The news comes just weeks after the Government announced that a regional fire control room based in Cambridge would deal with emergency calls from Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

Richard Spring, MP for West Suffolk, said a regional ambulance service would move another public service away from the people it serves in the county.

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He said the proposal would create a "vast bureaucratic structure", which was not necessary for sensible working between counties.

"If indeed the plan goes ahead to create a super regional ambulance authority this would simply once again take control over a very valuable public service further and further away from the people that use it," Mr Spring said.

"The amalgamation into a super bureaucracy like this would do absolutely nothing to improve the efficiency of the ambulance service and will indeed create a new bureaucratic structure, which may well impair the efficiency of the ambulance service.

"The way that everything people feel familiar with are being removed to a regional basis underlines the way that our public services are being run in the interest of the people that run the public services and not in the interest of the people they serve."

Shadow health minister and West Chelmsford MP Simon Burns said the proposals by Essex Ambulance Service to combine with other counties in the East of England was "change for change's sake".

He said: "Just as I do not support the regionalisation of the fire service, I do not support this either.

"Essex serves 1.5million people. Its size is massive, both in geographical and population terms and I do not see how a huge amorphous merger could be of any benefit whatsoever. It's something that I will be reviewing closely."

The review was prompted after a report presented by Lord Warner, the minister of state for NHS delivery, suggested that ambulance services should more closely mirror the country's Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs), which themselves are due to reform.

Currently, the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust does serve the same area as the existing Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire SHA.

Under the shake-up of the region's ambulance services, health bosses are looking at two major possibilities.

A supra-six county trust could be formed for the whole of the East of England or, alternatively, Essex Ambulance Service would merge with Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

It is thought the latter solution is the more likely, but Essex ambulance chiefs favour the former.

In both scenarios there would probably be one main control centre, which could be supported by a number of back-up and localised satellite offices.

Chairman of the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust board Andrew Egerton-Smith said: "What we, as a trust, would want to make absolutely certain would be that, if there is to be any change, there are real benefits to patients and that is, obviously, absolutely paramount.

"We would do our absolute best to make sure, whatever changes come about, that there would be no reduction in patient care and hopefully an improvement.

"There are going to be the same number of patients regardless of however many trusts there are and if any amalgamation of trusts leads to an improvement in patient care it must be considered to be a good thing."

Mr Egerton-Smith said he did not necessarily think ambulances would have to travel from further away under a regional service.

He said: "It does have to take into account the three counties the existing East Anglian Ambulance Trust covers. We have learnt to manage over very large areas and very rural populations.

"Essex, Herfordshire and Bedfordshire are very different geographical make ups. The way we operate is not necessarily the way they operate and vice versa - but it does not necessarily mean that we can't work together."

Richard Bourne, chairman of Essex Ambulance Service, dismissed worries that merging his trust with others in the East of England would lead to widespread cuts and instead claimed there would be more money for frontline services.

Mr Bourne was quick to reassure his 700 frontline staff and the public there would be no reduction in service quality.

He admitted there would be some senior management job losses in the short term and a "rationalisation" exercise among back office functions - including HR and finance - in the medium term, but for the remainder of any merged organisation, there would be a need for extra staff.

"The merger will happen, there's no doubt about that, but it's not about savings and job cuts. We will achieve economies of scale and that will allow for more investment.

"It will become a bigger organisation and better managed. What's important is that we all operate on the same technologies and that we have the same procedures.

"If there is just one control room, then there's no issue at all about different accents or sending ambulances to the wrong place.

"The vast majority of calls we field, we know where they're calling from anyway. We have a very comprehensive risk register and that one about misdirecting ambulances because of accents or different place names has never come up.

"This whole review is good news for the public," he added.

Consultation is about to start on the review, which was led by the country's ambulance bosses and supported by the Department of Health.

A decision on the outcome is expected by Christmas.

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