THE amount of cash spent on private ambulances going to help Wearside patients has gone up fourfold, according to new figures.
Statistics uncovered by the Labour Party in a Freedom of Information request found that the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) spent £2.8million on private ambulances in 2013/14.
The figure was just under £639,000 in 2011/12.
Ambulance trusts in some other part of the country have seen a tenfold increase.
NEAS said today that the increase in spending had been due to a shortage of paramedics, a rise in the population and the number of calls the organisation has to deal with.
But despite the rise in spending, the region’s ambulance response times have gone up by an average 51 seconds per call-out during the past four years.
The Echo has reported on a number of shocking cases in recent months where patients have been left waiting for paramedics to tend to them.
Six-year-old Keira O’Brien was left screaming in agony after falling from a bouncy castle at her cousin’s birthday party at Holy Rosary church in Arbroath Road, Sunderland.
Keira’s mum Karen Robinson hit out after her daughter had to wait three hours until an ambulance arrived.
And Sunday League footballer Marc Whitfield was forced to lie in agony, also for three hours, after breaking his leg in a match on pitches in Downhill earlier this season.
In both cases the NEAS apologised for the delays.
A spokeswoman for the NEAS said: “While it’s true that average ambulance response times have increased over the last three years, so too has the volume of calls being dealt with by our contact centre.
“Despite this marked increase in activity, the North East Ambulance Service remains one of the best performing in the country for reaching those patients most in need.
“To put it in perspective, our average response time to an emergency in 2011 was five minutes and 11 seconds. In 2014, it is six minutes. Both of which are well within the national target of eight minutes.
“Organisations such as Red Cross and St John have been used to a greater extent over the last year, again as a consequence of demand.
“There is also a national shortage of paramedics due to the longer three-year-period it now takes to complete the required degree.
“NEAS hopes to have an extra 140 paramedics by 2016.” Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham is now asking Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt for “urgent assurances about the safety and quality” of private ambulances.
He said patients would be “stunned to learn that even blue-light 999 services are being privatised”.
“It is proof that the Coalition sees no limits on privatisation in the NHS,” said Mr Burnham.
“They are driving the private sector into the public core of the NHS, offering up essential emergency provision to the lowest bidder.”