Shocking picture of ambulance service

EXCLUSIVEBy Liz HearnshawA RETIRED health worker has decided to speak out about the region's ambulance service and painted a shocking picture of staff shortages, poor morale and lack of resources.


By Liz Hearnshaw

A RETIRED health worker has decided to speak out about the region's ambulance service and painted a shocking picture of poor morale and a lack of resources.

Former ambulance technician John Hollywood, who spent 36 years on the frontline in London, Bury St Edmunds, Thetford and Mildenhall, said morale in the East Anglian Ambulance Trust was “terrible”.

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He claimed “totally inadequate” cover levels had been stretched to breaking point as dedicated staff struggled to meet added pressures of response time targets.

But trust bosses said they were not aware of any patients suffering as a result of its service, adding targets had been met in even the busiest of months.

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Mr Hollywood, who lives near Bury St Edmunds, claimed the trust's resources were so stretched at weekends that as many as 31 shifts across the county at one time were in need of cover.

“This is not good for the patients. I can put my hand on my heart and say people have died because of the situation,” he said.

“The levels of cover are totally inadequate and nearly every station is down at the weekends. Everybody is under a lot of pressure and morale is terrible.”

He claimed there were no crews covering Ipswich during one Saturday last month, while at other times resources had been scarce.

Mr Hollywood, 65, who retired on Sunday, said staff were called in from as far afield as Mildenhall to compensate - meaning vital knowledge of the quickest routes to hospital was lost.

“You can end up with Norwich crews working in Bury and in spite of all the satellite navigation we have, you cannot beat local knowledge,” he added.

“When you pick up a patient it gets worse - it is embarrassing when you have to ask a relative how to get to the hospital.”

Mr Hollywood said more responsibilities had been added to the service by the change in out-of-hours GP arrangements and he criticised “insulting” response time targets as another pressure on staff.

“We are expected to answer calls within certain times, but in reality this is not always done by a fully-manned, qualified ambulance and crew,” he added.

“It can be rapid response vehicles or community responders - which mean people can get on the scene to meet the targets, but you may then have to wait for an hour for an ambulance.

“When you are working on your own there is nothing worse than having to tell the relatives of someone with a cardiac condition you cannot take them to hospital as you are alone.”

Mr Hollywood continued: “I have been told on more than one occasion when I am working alone that every other vehicle is committed and I have been the only person in west Suffolk.

“The management have been so lucky - all you need is a multiple pile-up on the A14. The quality of the service to the public is absolutely tremendous, but the quantity is the problem.”

Paul Henry, acting director of operations at East Anglian Ambulance Trust, said response time targets were clinically important.

“The sooner we get someone there with life-saving skills, the better the chances of the patient's survival,” he added.

“The dispatch centre sends qualified resources to get someone trained in life support and use of a defibrillator there as early as possible. We prioritise as quickly as we can and send back-up if transport by ambulance is required.”

Mr Henry continued: “We certainly are not aware of any lives lost as a result of cover levels. Any question of that would lead to a full and complete investigation.

“February has been a tough month for the staff, but we are not aware of any patients suffering as a result.

“At regular intervals, we take a close look at our demand for services using statistics to identify various patterns.

“Things are quite predictable, so we can draw conclusions about the amount of vehicle cover and staffing required to maintain safe levels of performance to meet national standards.”

Mr Henry said crews could also cross the border from Cambridgeshire or Norfolk if resources in Suffolk were pushed.

Seamus Elliott, the trust's human resources director, said its performance involving life-saving calls had exceeded targets in Suffolk in February by 2.15%, while the level of activity had been 15% higher than the same month the previous year.

He added training programmes and staff sickness during winter had affected cover levels, but an independent survey had shown a low number of staff had suffered work-related stress.

A spokesman for the Department of Health, responding to the criticism of response time targets, said the focus lay with meeting emergency needs quickly and appropriately.

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