September 12, 2008

Fury at Plan to Axe 70,000 Ambulance Hours

By William Allen

HEALTH chiefs are planning to axe 70,000 hours of ambulance cover across Northern Ireland as part of a savings effiency drive.

The health union Unison has predicted that a major reorganisation programme could cost lives.

Union official Brian Ferguson said Unison had been made aware by the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) of plans to cut ambulance cover over the next three years to claw back more than Pounds 1m.

This year, 17,520 hours are being axed, moving up to 35,040 hours by 2009-10, and to 70,080 by the third year. NIAS confirmed short- term cuts were to be introduced but said the reorganisation would benefit patients and there would also be investment.

The Department of Health last night confirmed it had agreed with the NIAS proposal to cut 17,000 hours this year but said it has taken no decision yet on the other two years.

However, the union said the plans involve replacing ambulances with Rapid Response Vehicles (RRVs), and claimed this will not work, because they are unable to ferry people to hospital.

The union also believes some ambulances are too old and the Government should fund a rolling replacement programme rather than scrapping them and replacing them with RRVs.

Londonderry-based shop steward John Kay said: "There are concerns about the way the ambulance service is going downhill. They are already cutting over 17,000 hours of frontline ambulance cover, and they say they will replace them with 43,000 hours of RRV cover. That's one paramedic in a car replacing two in a frontline ambulance. RRVs can't transport people to hospital. They also can't work at night.

"If an RRV paramedic is used to treat someone at a roadside, they can only work there to the best of their ability but people often need to be taken to hospital.

"It's cost lives in England. They are also most suited to urban, not rural areas. By management's own admission, the only urban area in Northern Ireland is Belfast. Even Derry is considered rural by NIAS. RRVs are needed in addition to ambulances not to replace them."

Mr Kay said paramedics talked about a "golden hour" within which critically ill patients need to be got to hospital, and said he feared this would happen less often if there were 70,000 fewer frontline ambulance hours.

He also said: "It's all about response targets. If we get to a patient in 10 minutes, outside the eight-minute target, and the patient lives, NIAS regards it as a failure. If we get there within eight minutes and the patient dies, it regards it as a success."

In response, a NIAS statement said: "There are a number of other areas which will also be addressed to realise savings towards the overall target of Pounds 1,236,000."

Viewpoint, Page 32

Originally published by William Allen [email protected]

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