999 boss: I fear the worst this winter

North West Ambulance Service
North West Ambulance Service
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Paramedics are on red alert for a chilling winter as an alarming rise in 999 calls continues to stretch the service.

The region’s top ambulance boss fears crews may struggle to cope with the annual spike in cold weather emergencies if unprecedented summer demand does not ease off soon.

Life-threatening “red” call-outs are currently 15 per cent up on the same spell last year – and showing no sign of dropping.

“If we get a normal winter hike in activity on top of the current level, there is a concern about our ability – not just as an ambulance service but as the NHS as a whole – to cope adequately with the winter,” warned Bob Williams, chief executive of the North West Ambulance Service, in an exclusive interview with the Evening Post.

Services across the country have been hit by an extraordinary rise in 999 calls this year.

North West Ambulance is now getting around 4,000 pleas for help every day – nine per cent up overall – with around 1,200 of those given “red” status because they could potentially prove fatal.

Priority cases have meant some calls deemed less serious have been kept waiting for an ambulance.

But the service denies the problems are partly due to cutbacks in funding.

In Preston the situation came to a head in early July when driver Saira Khalid had to be ferried to hospital on a spinal board in the back of a fire engine after being cut from the wreckage of her car, when paramedics didn’t show.

Two days later, a couple injured in a house fire in Ribbleton also went to A&E in a fire engine because they couldn’t get an ambulance.

A glut of similar cases across the region prompted the NWAS to abandon plans for economies which would have taken a number of vehicles off the road.

“It is not that we have cut back resources,” said Mr Williams. “Yes, we had plans to do that and we have been absolutely open about that and we took the heat in the press about that too. But we didn’t invoke those plans.”

With the unseasonal increase in 999 calls continuing to worry the service, bosses are now looking at how they can cater for a winter spike of potentially life-threatening incidents on top.

“One hopes that this activity does go down to some kind of norm prior to the winter, or the winter spike isn’t as high as it normally is,” said Mr Williams.

“We were dealing with 1,080 to 1,090 red calls out of 4,000 a day in the North West prior to the spike which came at the end of May or beginning of June.

“We are now dealing with 1,190 to more than 1,200 a day. And if this continues I think there is a real concern within the NHS.

“We have had a very difficult three months – activity has been way beyond the norm.

“The spike has been huge and it has been unprecedented in terms of the length of time it has lasted and the period of the year that it has happened.

“This doesn’t normally happen across the summer months. No-one fully understands why it has happened. What on earth has caused it and continues to cause it?

“It is showing no signs of abating. It has plateaued instead of going down. But this isn’t just in our region, it is across the country.

“At the moment we are planning for the current level of activity being where it is and the winter activity going on top of that. And that is going to be quite a tall order.”