Rural areas ‘hit hardest by £5m cuts to ambulance service’

People in rural areas risk being neglected by their ambulance service because a system of top-down targets means bosses are forced to focus resources on large towns and cities, a Yorkshire MP has warned.

Bassetlaw MP John Mann said he has evidence of an “in-built bias” against people living in rural and semi-rural areas in the way East Midlands Ambulance Service responds to emergency calls.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Mann gave an example of one young mother who lost her baby as a result of the ambulance service’s failure to prioritise her emergency call.

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He said the East Midlands service – which takes patients to hospitals in Sheffield, Doncaster and Bassetlaw as well as further south – is being forced to cut spending by £5m, and that it is rural areas which will be hit hardest.

“There are bigger problems for people who do not live in a city,” the Labour MP said. “The problem of averaging to meet targets means that, by definition, high-density cities will always be prioritised over low-density rural areas.”

Mr Mann said that because ambulance response times are averaged across rural and urban areas, it made sense for cost-cutting NHS bosses to focus on hitting targets in the towns and cities which have a higher density of population,

“The average time for an ambulance to get to a job is much shorter in the city,” he said.

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“Therefore, by definition, ambulance services will disproportionately put their resources in the high-density cities rather than in rural areas.

“That is bound to happen, and the problem when the service faces a shortage of money is that when it reconfigures to meet response times, it has to downgrade the rural areas.”

Mr Mann said that furthermore, once an ambulance service knows it has missed its target response time for an individual emergency, it will focus on other incidents and can take hours to get to the original job.

“As we see repeatedly, not least in respect of elderly people, if the target is not met, the ambulance does not come for many hours,” he said. “For example, one 80-year-old pensioner was lying in a garden for more than an hour with a broken hip. Because the immediate response target could not be met, the emergency was de-prioritised, and the ambulance was sent somewhere else to meet another target.”

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Health Minister Anna Soubry said she agreed with many of the points made, and that the coalition has been working to remove many of the top-down targets in the NHS introduced under New Labour.

“This debate is an example of targets doing all the things they were designed not to do, constricting a service and making it worse,” she said.

“I take the view that targets are not particularly improving services.

“I think there is a case for re-examining targets, and I hope he would join me in saying to the ambulance service ‘let’s look again at these targets in the NHS to see whether they’re doing the job we want them to do’.”