POLICE stepped in to take a collapsed 91-year-old to hospital after the nearest ambulance reported it was 20 minutes away.

POLICE stepped in to take a collapsed 91-year-old to hospital after the nearest ambulance reported it was 20 minutes away. The pensioner, who is not being named, lost consciousness as he sat on his own in a bakery in Hartlepool s Middleton Grange Shopping Centre.

Staff at Mary Lambert called an ambulance after fearing he may have suffered a heart attack but were told they would have to wait 20 minutes.

Angry campaigners and witnesses today branded the delay more than twice as slow as Government guidelines of eight minutes as a disgrace.

The incident is the latest in a catalogue of controversies to hit the Tees, East and North Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust (TENYAS).

In January the Hartlepool Mail told how firefighters were called to treat a collapsed schoolgirl after no ambulances were available.

And in October last year firefighters also rushed to treat a dying heart attack victim.

But ambulance chiefs today revealed the most recent problem was down to an extreme set of circumstances including one of the service s own vehicles being in a road smash.

The pensioner was taken ill at around 12.30pm yesterday although no ambulance was immediately available when staff called 999.

Police who were at the shopping centre dealing with a shoplifter overheard news of the delay on their radio and stepped in to take the man to hospital.

Councillor Colin Reynolds, a member of Hartlepool and South Easington Community Health Council, today branded a 20 minute delay as unacceptable.

He said: This should never, never happen. It s absolutely disgraceful. If an ambulance is called every second counts. Twenty minutes is an absolute disgrace.

The staff member at the bakery, who did not wish to be named, added: It s ridiculous. That man could have died for all they knew. It s definitely worrying.

Nigel Metcalfe, press officer for TENYAS, said Hartlepool was normally covered by three ambulances and a rapid response car manned by a paramedic.

But just before 11.30am yesterday that vehicle was involved in a smash in Kennedy Gardens, Billingham.

Other vehicles were involved and two ambulances attended the scene because it had been reported there were two or more casualties.

Hartlepool s third ambulance had been called to a town address at the same time by a doctor whose patient was having breathing difficulties.

The first available ambulance was dispatched to Middleton Grange at 12.41pm but stood down when the police volunteered to step in.

Mr Metcalfe said police and firefighters were trained in basic trauma life support for just such emergencies.

He told the Mail: We would wish to praise them for doing a good job.

He added: We would love to have an ambulance on every street corner but unfortunately we have to live with our resources.

A spokeswoman for Hartlepool Police said officers had been happy to assist.

The 91-year-old patient, who finally reached Hartlepool General Hospital at 1.09pm, was detained for observation and his condition was last described as comfortable.