We are all now aware that covid has created a substantial backlog in planned and elective treatments in the NHS. In response the Prime Minister this month announced a £36bn investment in health and social care.
But what is less recognised is the impact covid has had on emergency medicine, including our ambulance services. Just this week, the SNP government has asked the British Army for help to maintain a viable ambulance service north of the border.
I have been engaging for some time with West Midlands Ambulance Service, to raise issues of concern. The pandemic has caused enormous pressures on the system, with continuing infection control needs limiting capacity in our acute hospitals. This has led to huge pressure on the ambulance services, with long waits to handover patients at A&E. This reduces availability of ambulance crews across the county and places considerable stress on staff, exacerbated by unprecedented demand on the service. Paramedics are telling me they are increasingly working longer shifts to ensure safe handover of patients.
For example, WMAS set a new record for 999 calls on 19th July when they received and answered 6,418 calls in a 24-hour period. Average handover times at Shrewsbury are running this month at over an hour, and at Telford 100 minutes, against the target of 15 minutes.
As part of their response WMAS have proposed closing all the remaining ten community ambulance stations, including the small stations at Bridgnorth and Craven Arms, in order to improve availability of crewed ambulances. They explain the way the ambulance service responds to calls is dynamic, with crews no longer waiting in stations for calls, as they are now despatched from case to case non-stop through their shift. Paramedics rarely return to the station other than for shift change and meal breaks. They are out in the community tending to people in need, with fewer than half of their attendances requiring admission to hospital.
But there is considerable concern about this, not least as it has not been subject to public consultation. which I have raised directly with the Chief Executive.
Responses to emergency calls from rural South Shropshire are my priority and I have pressed for reassurances that any service model changes must improve access for patients.
In addition paramedics who live near these stations are worried about the impact of being required to travel to and from the large ambulance hubs, such as Shrewsbury and Hereford at the start and end of their increasingly long shifts.
I shall continue to challenge the WMAS leadership to ensure that both service levels and welfare of staff are not compromised as a result of these changes.