Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is under pressure this morning after it emerged that target times for ambulances to reach some seriously-ill patients could be lengthened.
A leaked document, obtained by the Press Association, includes plans to change the response time for some “Red 2” patients - those with “serious but not the most life-threatening” conditions - from eight to 19 minutes in England.
It said the proposals have been approved by Mr Hunt, subject to confirmation from the medical directors of 10 ambulance trusts.
The Department of Health said “no decisions have been made” and Mr Hunt would only agree to plans that improve response times for the most urgent cases.
The current target is for an emergency vehicle to reach those in life-threatening situations within eight minutes.
According to the leaked memo, drawn up by the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, NHS England has agreed “in principle” to relax the maximum ambulance wait for some Red 2 incidents, which include a range of serious problems including strokes and seizures.
The only higher category is Red 1 - “immediately life-threatening” incidents such as cardiac arrest, choking and major bleeding.
The changes would see about 40% of Red 2 incidents move to a 19-minute response target while the proposed date for implementing the plans is the first week of January, the report states.
Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, wrote to Mr Hunt today to demand immediate answers on the plans and ask why Parliament was “treated with contempt” three days after he signed them.
He said: “Jeremy Hunt was dragged before Parliament last Thursday to answer questions on NHS winter planning but treated it with contempt.
“It is outrageous that he decided to keep MPs and the public in the dark about a decision he had already taken and one which will have far-reaching implications across the NHS.
“Patients are already waiting hours on end for ambulances to arrive. People will struggle to understand how, in the middle of a crisis, it makes sense for the Government to make a panic decision to relax 999 standards and leave patients waiting even longer.
“This leak leaves Jeremy Hunt with extremely serious questions to answer. He must do so today.
“The NHS is in a dangerous position and crying out for leadership. Jeremy Hunt must start providing it or make way for someone else who will.
“Labour has been warning the Government all year about the growing crisis in A&E but it failed to act.
“David Cameron allowed A&E to sink into crisis by taking social care support from older people and making it harder to see your GP.
“It proves he can’t be trusted with the NHS. He must now accept his responsibility to turn it around.
“Labour will rescue the NHS with a £2.5 billion a year Time to Care fund - on top of Tory spending plans - to fund new staff, including 20,000 more nurses.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “We have given ambulances an extra £50 million this winter to ensure the service remains sustainable and the Secretary of State agreed that NHS England should investigate a proposal from the ambulance services themselves to see whether the service they offer the public could be improved.
“No decisions have been made and the Secretary of State would only agree to proposed changes that improve response times for urgent cases.”
Professor Keith Willett, trauma surgeon and head of NHS acute care, said: “Any operational changes to ensure ambulances reach sickest patients even quicker would need to be proposed by the senior doctors running ambulance services and agreed by the NHS nationally.
“No such decisions have been taken on their proposals, nor will they be - one way or the other - until next year.”
Mr Hunt tweeted about the Mail on Sunday’s front page headline about the proposals - “Secret plan to double ambulance wait times”.
He posted: “Categorically refute scaremongering MoS headline - no plans to double ambulance waiting times, and there never have been.”