THE outgoing chief of the North East Ambulance Service today insisted that 999 delays are not being caused by a “lack of resources”.
Simon Featherstone, chief executive of the NEAS, agreed to speak to the Mail after his organisation came under fire following a number of high-profile delays including the death of pensioner William Gouldburn.
But despite a coroner, union chiefs and senior NEAS staff all pointing to a lack of resources as a key factor in a two-hour delay in reaching the stricken pensioner, Mr Featherstone refused to accept that funding cuts were an issue.
Town MP Iain Wright will raise the issue in the House of Commons tomorrow to make senior ministers aware of the delays across the region.
Mr Gouldburn died in April last year after a fall on his bathroom floor, with a wait of more than two hours between a 999 call and an ambulance getting to him.
Last month, 66-year-old retired bus driver Stan Kelly had to wait almost four hours after taking ill at home, while Sunday league footballers Paul Dobbings and Geoff Pearson both had lengthy waits of more than an hour and rugby player Luke Leyland lay with a dislocated neck for two hours before an ambulance reached him in Peterlee.
At the inquest into Mr Gouldburn’s death, Hartlepool coroner Malcolm Donnelly said the tragic case was “a sad consequence of a lack of resources”.
And Tom Howard, head of the NEAS contact centre which handles 999 calls, told the inquest: “Mr Gouldburn didn’t receive the level of care that he should have done. It is a resource issue.”
But despite those comments, Mr Featherstone insists that is not the case.
He says while his organisation operates on a lower budget than other ambulance services around the country, figures show that NEAS is “the most successful servive in England in terms of response to emergency calls”.
He said: “The issue of delayed responses has been going on for the last two and a half years, this isn’t just something I have become aware of after the articles involving patients in Hartlepool and East Durham.
“It goes without saying that I am sorry for any untoward deaths. I can assure you that nobody within my team doesn’t care about these stories.
“But the issue is not about funding. The NHS as a whole has not had its funding cut, so I can’t sit here and blame the Government, or the previous Government.
“If anything, the budget has gone up to take inflation into account. But the number of ambulances has not been cut whatsoever.
“Of course, if we had more ambulances on the roads then the delays wouldn’t be as severe. But, for me, it’s not about more ambulances.
“It’s about spending money on frontline staff, and minimising problems which are caused by over-prioritising 999 calls.
“Sometimes calls are made for an ambulance and we are given a response time of an hour. In hindsight when we look at the case, that response time could have been longer, maybe up to four hours for a case which wasn’t urgent.”
In the financial year just ended, NEAS attended 17,631 cases which were deemed as ‘red’ where there was a risk the patient could die.
The target time for those calls is eight minutes, and NEAS’s average was five minutes. A total of 97.8 per cent of red calls were with a patient within 19 minutes.
There were 16,026 ‘green’ calls made for patients with ailments which are not life threatening, 74 per cent of which are reached with half an hour.
In addition those those, there were 5,211 calls made by GPs to transfer patients to hospital. Described as “non emergencies”, these patients can expect to wait between one and six hours for an ambulance.
Mr Featherstone went on: “There has ben a lot said and written of late about resource and public expectation. I understand that.
“What I would like to see would be for everyone to get around a table, representing all of the agencies on the medical pathway.
“Not just us as an ambulance service, but the health trusts, all of the partners involved in healthcare, the commissioners the local authority.
“Basically everyone who has a say in running the flow of patients through the hospitals and back into their homes or the community.
“We need a meaningful group to move forward.”
Mr Featherstone, who will step down from his position when he takes retirement later this year after 15 years in the role, was also keen to deny claims that there were less ambulances available in Hartlepool as a result of the closure of the A&E unit at the University Hospital of Hartlepool.
He added: “Those calls have doubled in the last 10 years, and continue to rise a rate of five per cent each year.
“Ambulances are continuously floating around Hartlepool. We have two bases in Hartlepool, at the north and south of the town, and we get to people as quickly as we possibly can.
“When the changes were made at the hospital, additional resources were introduced to compensate for that.”
HARTLEPOOL MP Iain Wright says he still intends to raise the issue of ambulance resources when he addresses the House of Commons tomorrow.
Mr Wright is aware of Simon Featherstone’s reluctance to blame budget cuts for the succession of recent delays, but says that will not affect the debate when he raises it in Parliament on Wednesday.
Mr Wright will debate the NEAS’s response times with a junior health minister after being outraged by the recent stories in the Mail.
The MP had written to the speaker of the House of Commons asking for a debate on the issue and had his request granted the following day.
Mr Wright said: “I’m surprised to hear that Mr Featherstone is playing down any issues over a lack of resources, as I find it hard to believe that in this day and age a man should die on his bathroom floor after a two hour wait.
“In this case, repeated calls were made to 999 and there wasn’t an ambulance available. That to me is a lack of resource, and that is what I will be raising in the Commons.
“Staff from the NEAS spoke at the inquest and said resources were an issue.
“I’m going to highlight the issues that have been raised in the Mail about the ambulance times and the admission from the ambulance service that they don’t have the resources to meet demand.
“I’m going to question the Government on what else needs to be done to make sure the ambulance and wider health service are well resourced as soon as possible.”
Dave Atkinson, Unison’s regional organiser for NEAS, was also critical of Mr Featherstone’s statements regarding resources.
He said: “There is a shortage of resources. They are using Red Cross and St Johns vehicles, there clearly aren’t enough ambulances or paramedics on the roads.
“Crews can’t finish on time, they’re working through their breaks.
“If there is an increase in demand, which is what Mr Featherstone is saying, then more resources should be made available.
“But it is out there in the public domain that the service needs to make savings of £23m over the next five years. Where are those cuts going to be made?
“You can talk all you like about being efficient and putting impressive figures forward about response times.
“But the top and bottom of it is there are not enough resources.”