NHS spends more than £1m a week hiring private ambulances for emergencies, Unison says

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Unison says more than a dozen private companies are being used to plug widening gaps in services

The NHS is spending more than £1 million a week hiring private ambulances for emergency calls, a trade union has claimed.

Unison, whose members have recently accepted a new pay deal from the government, says its figures were based on responses from two thirds of ambulance trusts in England that pay commercial companies to provide emergency cover for critical patients.

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It said more than a dozen private firms are being commissioned by ambulance trusts across England in a bid to plug widening gaps in services and meet response times amid what it described as overwhelming demand.

Crews and private vehicles are booked up to a year in advance, according to Unison, so they are available to respond to emergency incidents, such as road traffic accidents and stroke patients.

Unison says more than a dozen private companies are being used to plug gaps in services (Photo: Getty Images)Unison says more than a dozen private companies are being used to plug gaps in services (Photo: Getty Images)
Unison says more than a dozen private companies are being used to plug gaps in services (Photo: Getty Images) | Getty Images

The union warned that spending tens of millions on private 999 cover is only a “short-term fix, not a long-term solution to the crisis in ambulance services”. It described the move as a “shocking waste” of money and called on ministers to “step up” with a long-term plan to resolve the issue.

Speaking ahead of the union’s annual health conference in Bournemouth, Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton said: “This spend on private 999 services shows a lack of long-term planning and is a shocking waste of money. It’s nothing more than a sticking-plaster solution.

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“Ambulance services are in a desperate state because the government has failed to invest long term. Patients are waiting ages for help to arrive or worse still dying before crews can reach them. Others are stuck in emergency vehicles outside hospitals for hours and hours on end waiting for a bed.

“This is a crisis of the government’s own making that can only be resolved with a long-term plan. Ministers must step up and come up with proper funding to tackle increasing demand and pay staff properly.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are working hard to improve ambulance waiting times which have substantially reduced from the peak of winter pressures in December 2022.

“Our Urgent and Emergency Care Recovery Plan will allow people to be seen quicker by scaling up community teams, expanding virtual wards, and getting 800 new ambulances on the road. This is on top of £750m we provided this winter to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds.”

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It comes after Union members on Friday (14 April) accepted the NHS pay offer of a 5% pay rise this year, plus a cash payment for last year, while Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members voted to reject the deal.

The RCN has announced that its members will strike again for 48 hours from 8pm on 30 April and the warned industrial action could last until Christmas if an agreement with the government cannot be reached.

NHS nurses in emergency departments, intensive care and cancer wards will take industrial action for the first time. Asked if the union will stop strike action, RCN leader Pat Cullen told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg On Sunday programme: “No, our nurses will absolutely not do that.

“We have strike action for the end of this month and the beginning of May. Then we will move immediately to ballot our members. If that ballot is successful it will mean further strike action right up until Christmas.” The union leader added that nurses saw a one-off Covid bonus offered by the government as a “bribe”.

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Health Secretary Steve Barclay warned that fresh nurses’ strikes would have a “deeply concerning” impact on emergency services and cancer care and called on the RCN to accept the pay offer so the NHS can “get back to focusing on patients”.

On Sunday afternoon, Barclay tweeted a copy of a letter he had sent to Ms Cullen which urged the union to reconsider further industrial action and said he would welcome a meeting to discuss avoiding strikes.

In the letter, he said the most recent pay offer was a “fair and reasonable settlement”, adding: “The decision to refuse at this stage any exemptions for even the most urgent and life-threatening treatment during this action will, I fear, put patients at risk.”

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