More than one in four ambulances are off the road due to maintenance or reliability issues in some areas, an investigation reveals. 

Crews warn patients are being forced to wait too long for emergency care as trusts are struggling with a crippling shortage of staff and vehicles. 

Just 78 per cent of ambulances nationally are operational on any given day – falling to as low as 72 per cent at South Central Ambulance Trust. 

Meanwhile one in ten call handler roles are vacant across the UK, meaning the public face a delay requesting help in the first place. 

Crews warn patients are being forced to wait too long for emergency care as trusts are struggling with a crippling shortage of staff and vehicles. Stock

Crews warn patients are being forced to wait too long for emergency care as trusts are struggling with a crippling shortage of staff and vehicles. Stock

Crews warn patients are being forced to wait too long for emergency care as trusts are struggling with a crippling shortage of staff and vehicles. Stock

In the worst affected ambulance services, up to 39 per cent of 111 call handler posts and 29 per cent of 999 call handler posts are unfilled. 

The GMB union said the figures, obtained under Freedom of Information laws, show urgent action is required if the NHS is to meet critical performance targets. 

Paramedics should arrive at the scene of ‘category two’ calls, including potential heart attack and stroke victims, within 18 minutes. 

But the average in March, the latest month available, was 33 minutes 50 seconds, with one in ten waiting more than 1 hour 11 minutes. 

For life-threatening ‘category one’ calls, where a patient’s heart has stopped or they are not breathing, the target is 7 minutes but the average was 8 minutes 20 seconds, with one in ten waiting at least 14 minutes 48 seconds – more than twice as long as they should. 

Ambulance staff took an average of 5 seconds to answer 999 calls in March, but one in 100 callers had to wait for 76 seconds or more. 

And callers to 111 faced an average wait of 3 minutes 16 seconds, with one in ten abandoning their call before it was answered. 

Rachel Harrison, national secretary of the GMB, said: ‘These figures lay bare once again the terrible state that our NHS is in. 

‘With hundreds of vacant posts and vehicles out of service, it’s no wonder delays are so high. 

‘Trusts can’t recruit or keep the staff they need, while workers tell us high pressure, low pay, hearing damage and abuse are reasons staff are leaving early. 

‘We need action on shockingly low pay rates and unacceptable working conditions if services meet the standards patients need. 

‘These statistics also highlight the rank hypocrisy of the Government’s Minimum Service Levels legislation – trusts clearly can’t manage 80 per cent service levels on a normal day.’ 

A daily snapshot of data from four ambulance trusts in England shows they had 1,333 ambulances in their fleet but just 1,034 (77.6 per cent) operational, meaning 299 were unavailable for patient use. 

Others will have been sat outside hospitals waiting to hand over patients to doctors in A&E, meaning they were also unable to respond to new calls. 

Meanwhile, responses from 11 UK ambulance services shows the NHS employs 7,914 call handlers and dispatch operators but has 772 vacancies for these posts. 

East of England Ambulance Service says it has a 29.2 per cent vacancy rate for 999 call handlers, while South Central says it has 38.6 per cent of its 111 call hander jobs unfilled. 

Ambulance trusts have warned in board minutes that vacancies and fleet problems are holding back performance and risking patient safety. 

The South East Coast Ambulance Service said in February: ‘Targets for call answering are not being consistently achieved due to recruitment challenges, high staff turnover and low call performance. 

‘This results in risks to patient safety, clinical effectiveness, patient experience, colleague experience and Trust reputation.’ 

The North East Ambulance Service warned in November: ‘Vehicle availability and estates capacity could limit improvements in response time in both short and medium term.’

And South East Coast Ambulance Service also said in February that a quarter of its dual-crewed ambulances were older than their planned lifespan and ‘high vacancies within the Vehicle Maintenance Technicians team are impacting the capacity we have to address issues within our workshops.’ 

In some trusts the arrival of new vehicles has been delayed after Bolton-based ambulance manufacturer, VCS, went into administration last year. 

South West Ambulance Trust said in November that ‘only 13 of the 101 vehicles’ had been delivered due to the business’s failure and it warned it may have to write off £2.5million in advance payments. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Latest data from the NHS shows that 999 calls are being answered quicker – with the average wait being just five seconds – and we have 50 percent more ambulance staff compared to 2010. 

‘We are also putting 800 new ambulances on the road, with £200 million invested last year to increase services and reduce response times.’ 

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘Ambulance Trusts in England are working hard at retaining existing and attracting new talent, while the NHS Long Term Workforce reaffirms our commitment to improve staff’s working experience. 

‘NHS Ambulance Trusts also take the safety of their ambulances very seriously and have a regular programme of servicing and maintenance.’ 

Source: Mail Online

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