As Chair of the Northern Group of Labour MPs, Sharon secured a debate for North East MPs, who after dealing with many constituent cases and reading even more reports in local press over the last few years, were able to raise their concerns directly with the Government about the Performance of the North East Ambulance Service.
That this House has considered the performance of the North East Ambulance Service.
We as a country pride ourselves on our world-class NHS services, which are the envy of the world. It is therefore always important that we highlight failures and shortcomings to ensure that our services do not fail our constituents when they need them most.
Strains on services are part and parcel of life in the NHS, but in recent years the pressures have been exacerbated by the Government’s policies. Ever since the Conservatives were elected to office in 2010, the NHS has struggled due to their mismanagement. In particular, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 implemented a costly, top-down reorganisation, which was neither needed nor wanted. It led to a disjointed funding model and resulted in my local ambulance trust, the North East Ambulance Service, running an expected budget deficit of £3.5 million for 2015-16. It comes as no surprise that I have received a growing number of complaints and concerns about the NHS in recent years, which is why this northern group of MPs decided that we had to call for the debate.
All the services that the NHS provides are important, but when someone suddenly falls ill in an emergency such as a stroke or a heart attack, or has a fall or an accident, it is understandable that they have high expectations of our ambulance service. The important work that paramedics do in our region day in, day out is undeniable, but, as the cases that my constituents have brought to my attention and those that have been reported in the press show, patient safety is in jeopardy. That is mainly due to waiting times, which, as the cases I will outline illustrate, have increased and are causing distress to many of my constituents.
For red 1 and red 2 cases—potentially life-threatening incidents—the trust remains below the national standard. Although that is reflected across the country—only two ambulance trusts in England met red 1 standards—it is concerning that, in our region, that failure has continued for the past three years, despite the fact that our response time of eight minutes is higher than the national average. That is exacerbated by the fact that red demand calls have increased by 21.3% in the past 12 months. The performance targets for the fourth quarter of 2015-16 were breached, leading to the trust’s third consecutive quarter breach.
I called this debate to give myself and my fellow north-eastern colleagues the opportunity to raise cases and concerns directly with the Government to ensure that our constituents receive the very best standard of service, which they rightly expect. It is right that we raise concerns with the Government, who are ultimately responsible for the service and can ensure that something is done about the problems we raise. I will touch on some of the many cases ranging from 2012 to 2016 that my constituents have brought to my attention, and I know that other Members will do the same.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this extremely important debate. I am very concerned about the management. That was highlighted to me when I wrote a letter to the North East Ambulance Service about ambulance services in Teesdale. I got a letter back headed, “Ambulance services in Weardale”. The worst thing that happened was to Violet Alliston, whose partner rang three times in an hour. No ambulance came, and she died. That is obviously totally unacceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very sad example, which I fear and predict will be one of many—perhaps not all with such a tragic ending—that we will hear this afternoon.
The correspondence I have received about ambulance waiting times in my constituency makes it clear this has been a persistent problem since 2012. I was first told about the problem with waiting times by the league chairman of the Wearside football league after he raised concerns with the North East Ambulance Service directly about numerous incidents. In his correspondence, he said that waiting times for football players who had broken their leg had continually gone over 70 minutes. In one case, after a player broke their leg, the league chairman called 999 at 11.40 am, but he was called back and informed that no ambulance was available and that he should take the player by car. He rang 999 back and complained that that went against what trained first aiders were told about not moving people with broken bones. An ambulance then arrived at 1 pm—80 minutes after the initial call—and the young man was taken to hospital.
Ever since that case, I have received a range of correspondence from other constituents highlighting failures and shortcomings in ambulances going out to emergencies. An issue particular to my local area—I do not think it is replicated in other parts of the region, although we may hear differently when other colleagues speak—is that ambulances struggle to get to certain parts of my constituency due to confusion in finding the address. That has been repeatedly brought to my attention by my constituent, Mr Walker, who for the past two years has highlighted the difficulty that ambulance crews have getting to the Usworth Hall estate in Washington. When a shocking murder took place in the area in 2014, the ambulance did not arrive for more than an hour and the man died.
An example of that failure happened when a woman was in labour and her sister-in-law had to deliver the baby because the ambulance went to the wrong street. The children of the woman in labour had to search the streets for the ambulance. When they found it, they guided it by foot, as they were not allowed on board, for more than a mile to where it should have been.
I could give many other examples. It has been a persistent issue for the residents of Usworth Hall, who, through Mr Walker, have highlighted their concerns and their exasperation at those problems. On each occasion, I forwarded their concerns to the North East Ambulance Service, which looked into each issue. To its credit, it has tried to address them. That was highlighted in a letter to me in July 2014, in which it explained that it had set up an electronic flag system for all residents in Usworth Hall and had a duty manager from its control room go out and survey the area for problems. However, Mr Walker contacted me again at the beginning of April and informed me that an ambulance was parked outside his house one evening. When he went out to speak to the staff, he found that they were lost and supposed to be in another street.
Paramedics understandably do not have the local knowledge that residents have, but sat-nav equipment is provided to help ambulances get to the right destination at the right time.
Mary Glendon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend think that those delays could be because of the shortage of paramedics and the fact that, as the service has admitted, it uses volunteers and private contractors to provide ambulances? That exacerbates the problem of people not knowing how to get to where they need to be.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will come on to the shortage, which is running at about 15%, and the stress on paramedics, to which she alluded.
If the sat-nav equipment continues to fail, and if my interventions on behalf of my constituents and the ambulance trust’s action do not rectify the situation, there needs to be a serious investigation into what is going wrong. We cannot have our ambulances driving round lost on estates looking for the right street.
My most recent piece of casework is from February and is deeply concerning. It concerns my constituent, Mrs Ellen Sherriff. I feel that using the words emailed to me by my constituent’s husband, Mr David Sherriff, can help to highlight the situation and the distress that can come from having to wait hours and hours for an ambulance to arrive. I hope that you will allow me a moment to read out Mr Sherriff’s words, Mr Bailey. He said:
“Ellen became unwell at 10.35am yesterday morning with severe head pain on the right-hand side. She felt like she was going to pass out. I checked her blood pressure which was very high, so phoned 111 at 11am and spoke to a call handler who told me he was sending an emergency ambulance and not to be worried if it arrived with blue lights.
Two and a half hours later no one had come. Ellen remained unwell and could not stand any light.
I phoned 999 and was told the ambulance that was coming had been diverted to Cramlington but that we would be next unless a more urgent call came in.
At 2.40pm, a patient transportation ambulance arrived with two ambulance men. I asked why it had taken so long. They said given the circumstances Ellen should have been seen earlier. They had no equipment, not even a blood pressure machine. They said they couldn’t risk moving Ellen in case they caused the bleed in her brain to become life threatening and they would send for a paramedic. They would also remain here till he arrived. They also complained to the control room regarding the wait.
They sat outside until 5.30pm, 6 and a half hours after I first phoned. When the paramedic first arrived he examined Ellen and said she should have been in hospital 5 hours earlier.”
It was not until 6 pm, more than eight hours after the initial phone call, that my constituent, Mrs Sherriff, was admitted to hospital, where it was discovered that she did indeed have a bleed in the brain and that she should have been there much sooner.
Until Friday, Mr Sherriff was still awaiting a response to his complaint, which was sent in February. Perhaps the prospect of this debate ensured that he eventually got it. The trust has admitted errors in the handling and categorising of Mrs Sherriff’s condition, meaning that it was continually not treated with the urgency required. The trust has apologised and said that a “reflection and learning session” has been given to the original call handler, but this case could easily have had a tragic ending.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab)
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, which is important to all of us. Does she agree that the issue is not only with the ambulance service? Last summer, in the middle of the night, I took a relative to the university hospital in Durham. In the morning, when I came outside, I counted 12 ambulances stood outside the hospital and unable to discharge their passengers and get patients admitted. The whole system in the north-east is now simply not working.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point—we often hear about the queues of ambulances at accident and emergency. Patients have waited hours and hours for the ambulance to come, but when they get to the hospital, they sit in a queue outside. I have raised that with my local hospital. There is a huge breakdown in the system. Something is going seriously wrong, and it is completely unacceptable. Mrs Sherriff, a patient who had a suspected bleed in the brain, had to wait for more than eight hours before getting to A&E. That is truly shocking, and all those cases mentioned highlight concerns that the Government and the North East Ambulance Service must address.
I have one more issue to discuss before concluding, and that is to do with the numbers of qualified paramedics, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) mentioned in her intervention. When waiting times are going up and demand is rising, we clearly need to look at workforce retention and recruitment. Our paramedics do an amazing job, but they cannot be in two places at the same time.
At this point, I want to place clearly on the record that I am not apportioning any blame or criticism at all to any paramedic or ambulance crew. They do an amazing job, under very difficult and trying circumstances, day in, day out, and they should not be placed in situations whereby, once allocated, they race through traffic to a call, within the appropriate time allowed, only to be faced with stressed and sometimes angry people, who say, “Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting four, five, six or seven hours.”
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have an example from my constituency. A young lad, a teenager, had a road traffic accident, getting a compound fracture of the leg, but it took three hours for an ambulance to get to him.
When I met the ambulance chief executive, she told me that the problem is that the organisations that do employment and support allowance assessments are poaching qualified paramedics from the ambulance service, creating a great hole. There is a role there for Government, perhaps, to talk to the whole organisation, to see what can be done to put a stop to that.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I will touch on, although he made the case well. We have to look at the slippage, to where in the rest of the health service the paramedics are haemorrhaging, and why. I will say more about that in a moment.
Paramedics are there to treat people and give them emergency—perhaps life-saving—healthcare, but before they can even start to treat them, they might first have to calm the patient and relatives down, because of something that was completely out of their hands. It is therefore no surprise that, nationally, there is a shortage of qualified paramedics, and all trusts are struggling to fill vacancies so that they can operate at full capacity. The North East Ambulance Service has a 15% shortage, and is plugging the gap with private and voluntary organisations, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside mentioned. The service has said, however, that it will be up to full establishment in a year, but how many more people will wait for hours and hours before we get to that stage?
Something therefore needs to be done about the recruitment and retention of paramedics, especially since evidence has shown that more staff are leaving the profession than ever. Also, mental health charity Mind reported that 62% of blue-light emergency service workers have experienced a mental health problem and, worryingly, one in four has considered ending their own life. It is shocking to think about the stress that those people are working under.
It is no surprise that research conducted jointly by Unite, Unison and the GMB revealed at the end of last year that more than 1,500 paramedics had left the service in 2014-15, compared with 845 in 2010-11—still a high number, but a little more than half the later figure. Of paramedics surveyed as part of other research by the three unions, 75% had considered leaving the profession due to stress and pay.
Action therefore needs to be taken on recruitment, which is why I welcome the work of my local university, the University of Sunderland, which in partnership with the North East Ambulance Service has launched a diploma programme in paramedic practice. It will pair theoretical study with practical training over two years, and it will help to address the shortages faced by not only our regional trust, but other trusts around the country. That innovative work by my local university, alongside that of the outstanding paramedic practice degree at Teesside University, which is seen as a beacon of best practice in our region, if not the country, is important and will help.
It is, however, unsustainable not to address strategically the staffing shortages and the increasing demoralisation of a workforce who are haemorrhaging away, because that is clearly having an impact on waiting and call-out times for emergencies. That is why I hope that the Minister will address those concerns, and outline what the Government are doing to deal with recruitment and retention. How will she work with my local ambulance service trust to ensure that it reaches the target of being fully operational by this time next year? How will the ambulance trust ensure that those who are recruited into the field are retained and do not slip off to work for other parts of the health service, so that we do not see further shortages down the line?
It is important that our emergency ambulance services are up to the standard that we all expect. That means working collaboratively among ourselves, as the local Members of Parliament who represent our constituents and their concerns, and with the Department of Health, NHS England and the North East Ambulance Service Trust. Our constituents deserve the best standards in our NHS, and it is up to the Government seriously to address pressures on our NHS services, especially the case of the workforce in the ambulance service.
I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to my concerns, and will listen to those that my colleagues from the north-east who have attended the debate today express. I look forward to hearing what she has to say at the end of the debate.