Warnings as unfilled ambulance shifts increasing

The number of shifts going unfilled in the Scottish Ambulance service has increased since last year - with just 88 per cent of required staff hours filled in July this year, new figures have revealed.

The Army was brought in to help the Scottish Ambulance Service in September.
The Army was brought in to help the Scottish Ambulance Service in September.

Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole Hamilton called on the health secretary to apologise after it emerged that for three months straight in excess of 20,000 hours of ambulance staffing cover was not filled.

He said the number of unfilled shifts has been steadily increasing since 2019.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “These figures are a horror for patients and staff alike. The Ambulance Service is very clear about the number of staff it needs to respond to calls but the proportion of shifts that it has been able to fill is heading steadily downwards.

“Week after week I have pressed the government about the crisis in emergency care and week after week the government respond by blaming the pandemic. Yet the former Chief Executive of NHS Scotland said this crisis has been years in the making and the pandemic has only hastened the date."

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He added: “It must be hellish for call handlers taking repeat calls asking when an ambulance will be there. Paramedics know that behind the doors they knock are people who have been waiting in pain for hours.

“It isn’t the fault of the staff who’ve been issuing warnings for years. It’s the fault of consecutive SNP health secretaries who didn’t listen to them. Humza Yousaf must apologise and fix it before any more families lose loved ones because help couldn’t arrive in time.“It is why Scottish Liberal Democrats have proposed an urgent new Burnout Prevention Strategy to protect everyone on the frontline this winter. Staff and the public also deserve an inquiry into avoidable deaths connected to the emergency care crisis.”

It emerged in November that the number of ambulances staffed by just one person has risen by 70 per cent in six months. Critics have warned that single crewed ambulances pose a risk to patient wellbeing, leaving patients in the back of the ambulance without assistance while the lone crew member drives. In 2008, then-health secretary Nicola Sturgeon pledged to “eliminate” the practice, describing it as an “issue of deep concern”.

In September, the Army was brought in to drive non-emergency vehicles for the Scottish Ambulance Service.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “These unstaffed hours make up 0.7 per cent of total hours and are likely the result of unplanned staff absences from sickness or other reasons. The Covid-19 pandemic has been the biggest shock the NHS has suffered in its 73-year existence and has heaped pressure on our ambulance service and wider NHS.

“The Health Secretary recently set out £20 million of additional funding to help increase ambulance service capacity and improve response times and staff wellbeing. This builds on previous funding to help increase capacity and improve performance, including an additional investment of £20 million as part of the £1 billion NHS Recovery Plan.”

He added: “This investment comes from continued involvement with the SAS Demand and Capacity programme which this Government has been involved in since its inception in 2019 whichwill increase ambulance service staffing by almost 300 by April 2022.”

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