Anne-Marie Trevelyan is the PPC for Berwick-Upon-Tweed.
The issue of ambulance provision in sparsely populated and largely rural North Northumberland is rapidly developing into a crisis here, in the aftermath of a recent tragedy.
There have been growing concerns about ambulance response times, and public meetings were held back in 2013 to see if better provision could be made for the townsfolk of Berwick & its rural hinterlands. For these people, there is always a 60 mile journey to the nearest A&E – so the paramedics are truly life-savers.
I have recently been contacted by paramedics, who have shared with me some of their private concerns, and increasingly sense both that there is much more to this issue than meets the eye. The fact is that, during the day shift, two fully-staffed ambulances are available, and during the night shift, one is on call in this border town.
There are serious questions about the adequacy of this provision, and I would be interested to hear more about possible solutions – such as the operation of an additional voluntary ambulance service, along the lines of the RNLI, along the lines of that provided in some rural towns in Germany.
However, at present this is the cover available. Following the recent death of a 16 year old road traffic accident victim in Berwick-upon-Tweed itself, it took 26 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, despite indications that there was an ambulance already on standby in the town at the time
This seemed bizarre to me, so I
met with senior representatives of the North East Ambulance service.
What I have found out in consequence is truly startling, and raises an issue of significant national importance. It is is one which I am seeking to address directly with the regional GMB and Unison Unions as well as Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary,
A protocol negotiated with the unions, dating from the Agenda for Change agreement in 2004, states that calls will not be put through to the nearest paramedics, if they are on breaks – even for Category A calls, which relate to the most serious, life threatening emergencies. As part of those union negotiations, it was agreed that in a 12-hour shift paramedics would be entitled to at least one 45 minute break, which would be ‘unpaid and undisturbed’.
It is quite right that paramedics, who work under enormous pressures, get assured downtime. However, it cannot be right that there are no options in a situation in which an ambulance and paramedic team is available to attend the scene of a serious accident within a few minutes, but the call is not put through because of union stipulation about designated breaks.
I would support these teams being compensated in terms of time in lieu, or financially, but when it comes to Category A calls, which evidently require a rapid response and are a matter of life and death, it is unacceptable that any ambulance service will not get life-saving treatment to victims.
There are major issues in terms of retention, recruitment and morale within the hard-working and heroic ambulance services, and I am concerned about the welfare of the wonderful paramedic teams in Berwick and elsewhere who are blameless. I am sure are the very last people who think that ‘undisturbed’ breaks imposed by the unions should take priority over saving lives.
If others reading this article believe there have been similar incidents in their area, I would like to hear from them confidentially in order to build up a better picture of the national impact of this protocol. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.