In the latest example of a mounting staffing crisis in the NHS, it was revealed that the London Ambulance Service (LAS) is struggling to answer all 999 calls because of a shortage of call handlers.
A report submitted to the LAS board last week revealed that a 20 per cent shortfall of staff in two of its main control rooms meant that “the trust may be unable to maintain service levels,” according to the Guardian.
The two central emergency operation centres in Waterloo, central London and in Bow, east London, handle up to 5,000 999 calls a day, but sources inside the LAS have told the Guardian that the growing shortage of staff meant that many 999 callers experience a delay in an emergency.
Call handlers have reported that many are leaving for related and more highly paid jobs in the Fire Brigade and Met Police services, with many leaving within only a year.
Call handlers or Emergency Medical Dispatchers (EMDs) as they are called told the Guardian that they are being given incentives to work longer hours, such as double pay for overtime and double pay plus £100 for coming in during peak hours.
The LAS has responded with what it says is a targeted retention and recruitment drive that has hired 137 new staff across control rooms in the last year.
“We also have an additional 22 new call handlers in training and have call-handling courses running each month in order to bring us up to full capacity as quickly as possible,” LAS director of operations Paul Woodrow said.
Staff shortages ‘long time in the making’
But fears were raised by the Patients Association that the staff shortage could put patients’ lives at risk.
“The London ambulance service appears to be saying that it is likely that it will be unable to respond properly to medical emergencies due to a lack of staff,” the Association’s chief executive Rachel Power said. “This is hugely worrying, but also the logical end point of underfunding the NHS over a sustained period.”
“The consequences for someone having a stroke or heart attack, for example, don’t bear thinking about. Lives are being put at risk as a direct result of political choices.”
Unite head of health Sarah Carpenter agreed, and highlighted that the staff shortages in the LAS and elsewhere have been a long time in the making.
“These documents reveal a truly desperate state of affairs when ambulance staff, not just in London, but across the country are working flat out to answer emergency and other calls in the worst weather conditions for years,” she said.
“However, this is a crisis long in the making and is a result of the abject failure of the Tory government since 2010 to adequately fund the NHS. Unite has consistently warned, after receiving feedback from its members in the ambulance service, that there is a massive recruitment and retention crisis in the ambulance services across England,” Carpenter added.
This was a point emphasised by Unite rep and paramedic Debbie Wilkinson, who told UNITElive that while for example, the nursing staff shortage has been well-publicised, there’s a growing crisis in ambulance staffing as well that no one is yet talking about seriously.
“We are losing paramedics very, very quickly,” she warned. “People are going to work in prisons, as police or for example minor care nurses because they’re starting to realise that they have transferable skills that they can use in another setting. And they leave to go work in those other areas because it’s the same wage for far better working conditions.”
Carpenter laid the blame for LAS staff shortages squarely on the shoulders of the government.
“As it reaches its 70th birthday this summer, the NHS is on its knees and the buck for this stops at the door of health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt.”