Ambulance Response Times Could Double Under New Health Plans

British ambulance

Proposals to double the target response times for some serious conditions have been revealed. The changes would see patients suffering from strokes and seizures having to wait up to 19 minutes for an ambulance, double the current target of eight minutes. The document says that the plans have been given the go ahead by health secretary Jeremy Hunt, but the Department of Health has denied this.

The plans were drawn up at the behest of Prof Keith Willett, head of acute care at NHS England, who made an “urgent request” for discussions on the future of the ambulance service thanks to “unprecedented demand” on the health service.

The leaked NHS memo, sent to the Association of Ambulance Chiefs, details planned changes to the response times of 40 percent of emergencies currently categorised as “Red 2”, which includes seizures and strokes. It recommends scrapping the current eight minute target in place for first response – usually a “fast response” car – to reach the patient in favour of a 19 minute target for a full ambulance crew to reach the scene.

The response time for the most serious “Red 1” emergencies, which include heavy bleeding and heart attacks, would remain the same.

Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “This has all the hallmarks of a panic move and suggests Jeremy Hunt’s only solution to the A&E crisis is to give up and move the goalposts.

“Rather than getting ambulance response times back up to established standards, it looks like he is running up the white flag. The situation in the NHS is now serious and Jeremy Hunt is failing to provide the leadership it desperately needs.

“While there may be a case for reviewing these rules, this is not the way to do it. It is nothing short of dangerous to make a snap decision at the start of the most difficult winter in the NHS for years.

“Hunt’s decision risks leaving thousands of seriously ill people waiting longer for ambulances this winter. The Health Secretary needs to provide urgent reassurance that this change can be safely made and won’t put lives at risks.”

The memo, dated 16th December highlights that NHS England had “explicitly stressed” the plans were confidential and “should not be disseminated beyond the group” involved in the discussions. It was leaked by a whistle-blower concerned for public safety. The document indicates that the “target for implementing these changes was the first week of January 2015”.

One ambulance service director, who asked not to be named, told the BBC: “This is being done for political expediency rather than patient safety and it’s being done with the full blessing of Jeremy Hunt. This is being pushed through with limited consultation with the chief executives and the health service as a whole.”

However, a spokesman from the Department of Health insisted that there were “absolutely no plans” to increase waiting times. “We have given ambulances an extra £50m this winter to ensure the service remains sustainable and the Secretary of State agreed that NHS England should investigate a proposal from the ambulance services themselves to see whether the service they offer the public could be improved.

“No decisions have been made, and the Secretary of State would only agree to proposed changes that improve response times for urgent cases,” he said.

Mr Hunt’s colleague Chris Grayling told Sky News: “This is not something that has been decided. The Health Secretary will not give the go-ahead to something that weakens the support the Ambulance Service provides to our community.”

Martin Berry, executive officer of the College of Paramedics, has indicated that he is not opposed to change in principle, but expressed concerns that changes were being made “behind closed doors”.