Ambulance shake-up 'within six months'
THE proposed creation of a massive six-county ambulance service in East Anglia could be "rushed" through in just six months, it has been revealed.Fears were voiced by MPs last night at how quickly the planned new operation – covering Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire – may be set up.
THE proposed creation of a massive six-county ambulance service in East Anglia could be "rushed" through in just six months, it has been revealed.
Fears were voiced by MPs last night at how quickly the planned new operation – covering Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire – may be set up.
The EADT revealed earlier this week how the shake-up had moved a step closer after Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Strategic Health Authority (SHA) supported the controversial proposals.
And it has now emerged the aim is for a shadow board of the new organisation to be in place for the supra-service by April 1 next year.
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Andrew Egerton-Smith, chairman of the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust, said the time available to set up the service may, in reality, be even shorter – because of a potential three-month consultation period.
He said: "In terms of patient benefits I have not seen any yet as a result of the larger proposed unit. What would have to be absolutely assured is that patient care was at least as good in the new trust as it is in the old East Anglian.
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"There has to be a levelling up to the best standards in the country in those new trusts. It can be done but it needs very careful planning and the timetable does seem very tight."
It is not yet clear whether the ambulance trust merger will simply be administrative or operational.
But Tim Yeo, MP for South Suffolk, said the timetable was "very tight indeed" and appeared to be driven by the demands of the bureaucrats rather than the needs of patients.
He said: "There's always a risk, if things are done hastily, that they are not done as well as they could be. I am sure the management on the ground will do everything they can to make sure the current level of service is maintained.
"The ambulance trust response times are absolutely crucial to the efficiency of the service and the confidence of patients.
"It will not make it any easier if this has got to be put through in a rush."
Richard Spring, MP for West Suffolk, said of the potential April 1 deadline to set up the new service: "That just sums it up."
He said there was no proof that regional structures in the public services improved them. Instead he claimed they would be more remote from the people they serve.
Mr Egerton-Smith said he expected there to be one board serving the six-county area, inevitably leading to a reduced number of senior executive jobs.
However, he said it would be "absolutely essential" there was at least one senior person in every county who would look after patients' interests in that area.
The East Anglian Ambulance Trust currently covers Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Under the plans it would merge with counterparts in Essex, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
Mr Egerton-Smith also revealed how they had been expecting a consultation on various options in the review, which was prompted by the Department of Health (DH) and led by the SHA.
Instead the public consultation will look only at the proposal to merge into the six-county service.
The timetable for the plans will see DH approval for the start of a statutory consultation given in November. The ambulance trust "configuration" would be completed by December, with the consultation finishing in March 2006.
Mr Egerton-Smith said he did not know if there would be one control room serving the area but with Princess Anne opening the trust's high-tech control centre soon, he hoped there would be a replication of that centre somewhere else in the region, should the proposals go ahead.
Meanwhile, in a report to the board of the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust, chief executive Dr Chris Carney said the trust had initially thought it would be spared from the merger because of its size and effectiveness. He said the proposal had "eroded" previous assumptions.
But in his September performance report, which was presented to the trust's board meeting on Thursday Dr Carney said: "Having accepted this change in direction, we are now determined to push forward the excellent work that the trust has undertaken over the last few years with many innovations that have been recognised across the UK.
"We are determined therefore to push exceedingly hard to take our good practice and excellent staff forward into a new organisation to ensure any merger produces a levelling up of performance and capability rather than any levelling down.
"This trust is particularly sensitive to the potential mishaps and poor results of badly conceived mergers and we must ensure our experience is put to good use in making sure this does not happen again."