This week on the Public Accounts Committee we held an inquiry into NHS ambulance services in England. Given how many constituents have told me about their distressing experiences of waiting for an ambulance in recent times, I was keen to raise my concerns with NHS and government officials.
Per head of population the North East receives the lowest income for urgent and emergency care in the whole of England. Unfortunately, the only explanation I received for this unfair spending discrepancy was unspecified ‘historical factors’ relating to the different way that ambulance services have been commissioned across the country.
At a time when the North East Ambulance Service is clearly facing big challenges in responding to the most serious emergency calls in time, this is simply not good enough.
According to a recent report by the National Audit Office, in 2015-16 the Service responded to only 68% of the most urgent Red 1 calls within 8 minutes – far short of the NHS target of 75%. Although it performed well in recent Care Quality Commission inspections and is the most cost-effective in England, it has the highest staff sickness absence rate in the country.
Hard-pressed paramedics and call handlers are clearly doing their best to cope with an ever-increasing workload, while steps are being taken locally to improve response times and train more paramedics. But I’m concerned that wider delays across the NHS and the social care system are making the situation impossible and unsustainable.
This is not just a problem for our region but for the country as a whole, with national figures showing that every ambulance trust in England is finding it hard to meet response time targets.
If the government is to meet the growing demand for ambulance services nationwide, ministers need to address the issue of delayed discharges from hospitals, when elderly patients are unable to return home because there’s no social care in place.
This is stopping ambulances from transferring new patients into hospital and causing dangerous backlogs in the system.
I’ve also been calling on the government to tackle the rising shortfall in the number of GPs in Sunderland. GPs play a critical role in keeping people out of hospital, but local people tell me that it can be almost impossible to get an appointment when they need one.
Cash-strapped ambulances services like the north east also need more money, while greater involvement of doctors and nurses in NHS 111 and proper funding for social care would help make a big difference. Any attempt to deliver new models of care are doomed without sufficient staff to implement them, so ambulance trusts need more help to retain and recruit paramedics as well.
Ambulance services can be a matter of life or death. It’s right that we fight to ensure everyone can access them in time.