Graham Stuart: Ambulance row is a matter of life and death

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MY constituent Ray Poole suffered a heart attack at his home in Hornsea last October. It took 15 minutes for the first help to arrive, and 28 minutes for the ambulance to turn up. By that time, despite the best efforts of his family, he was dead. His son Simon, who attempted cardiac massage on his father, has said: “If they could have been there sooner I think he could still be here.” In a sick irony, the Pooles live just 450 yards from the local ambulance station.

Mr Poole’s death was a tragedy for his family. It also illustrates a serious problem with ambulance response times in rural parts of East Yorkshire. Too many ambulance crews get sucked into answering calls in Hull and don’t get released again to country stations.

A number of constituents who work for Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) have contacted me to report their concerns. One paramedic told me: “We are regularly travelling 15 to 20 miles to calls from Hull to villages in the East Riding.”

This is not the only challenge the service faces. Separately, I have received reports of shifts going uncovered in ambulance stations owing to staff shortages. As of last month, there were 11 staff vacancies in my home town of Beverley alone.

The consequences of this should concern us all. The percentage of ambulances responding to call-outs in under eight minutes in Mid Holderness was 50.1 per cent in the second half of 2012. Between January and June 2013, that figure fell to 45.6 per cent. The latest data shows it slumped again – to just 37.9 per cent – during the second half of last year. The national target is for 75 per cent of emergency calls to be answered in that time.

I have led a longstanding campaign for YAS to improve its performance, and have emphasised to managers that they need to get a grip on the service. The YAS is currently recruiting additional staff, but in the meantime cover is dangerously low at stations across Beverley and Holderness. 

Against this background, I have been shocked to learn that the trade union Unison has mounted a campaign to stop YAS using private ambulances which play an important role in relieving pressure on the service.

A statement issued by Unison last summer said that following “heated” discussions, the YAS Trust “has agreed to start reducing the use of private providers immediately by 50 per cent and stop using them completely by the 1st October 2013”. It went on to warn: “We will instigate a massive campaign should the Trust fail to honour their commitment.”

Constituents have told me that Unison have threatened strike action over the continued use of some private ambulances by YAS. This cannot be right. At a time when the ambulance service in East Yorkshire is under strain, most people will be unable to understand why the union is standing in the way of YAS using private providers to ease the pressure and protect patients – at least in the short term.

I know feelings are running high among YAS union members about changes being introduced to arrangements ranging from meal breaks to staff rotas. I also know that the overwhelming majority of ambulance staff care deeply about the work they do.

However, to hold YAS over a barrel over the issue of private ambulances amounts to playing politics with people’s lives. It raises serious questions about Unison’s judgment. I hope the Labour Party, which received £1.25m from Unison in the last year, will come out and denounce this short-sighted assault on patient safety.

How YAS responds to this challenge will be crucial. Last week the chief executive, David Whiting, assured me that the Board had made a decision not to use private ambulances because of a lack of available options. However, since then the extent of Unison’s campaigning has become clear, and it is hard not to suspect that this – rather than quality concerns – has affected decision-making. A senior manager told me separately that YAS was forced to “capitulate” to union pressure.

It is essential that the YAS Board is transparent about its actions. It needs to make it clear whether it authorised a new policy on private ambulances – and if so, when and on what basis it did so.

Unison also needs to think again. It is totally unacceptable for them to put their antagonism towards the private sector ahead of saving lives. Unison should rethink its position – but if it persists, the YAS management must show greater resolve than it has shown to date in telling Unison that patient safety comes first.

Graham Stuart is the MP for Beverley and Holderness.