ELDERLY people could see nurses and GPs respond to 999 calls ahead of ambulances as North-East paramedics struggle to cope with soaring demand.

MPs have branded the move by clinical commissioning groups (CCG) in County Durham as “desperate measures,” while one councillor said people in rural communities might as well just call for an undertaker.

In an email, seen by The Independent newspaper, nurses and GPs were told they may have to act as first responders when older people have fallen in their homes and paramedics are delayed by more than an hour. This could include administering painkillers such as intravenous morphine.

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The message, sent to GP practises in the Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield CCG and North Durham CCG areas, says it would help prevent “tragic” cases of older patients with serious fractures waiting for an ambulance with no pain relief.

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Neil O’Brien, clinical chief officer at North Durham CCG, stressed it was for those needing urgent not emergency help.

“We are asking everyone to help the NHS over winter,” he added. “Please only use the emergency services when it is obvious that you or another person has a life-threatening illness or injury.”

It comes as the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) reports a “staggering” rise in 999 and 111 calls over Christmas, with more than 24,500 calls made between December 23 and 26, compared to 16,400 calls during the same period in 2016.

NEAS attributes this to inappropriate 999 calls and ambulances being forced to queue outside of hospitals due to lack of space.

However senior doctors fear the move could affect patient safety, as not all nurses are trained to paramedic levels, and morphine should only be given when there are facilities for “continuous observation and respiratory support.”

North Durham MP Kevan Jones said the news would alarm many elderly people, adding: “NEAS needs to urgently address why its seen an increase in calls and particularly whether it’s a result of other decisions in the NHS making it harder for patients to access services.”

Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman added: “A 91-year-old constituent recently had to wait five hours for help after he fell down. This is unacceptable. If local GPs can provide this service that is great, but really NEAS needs to improve significantly.”

Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson said: “These are desperate measures which go to prove that the NHS is completely underfunded and needs to be reformed. The Government is not doing enough.”

Weardale county councillor John Shuttleworth said residents in rural areas already struggled to get doctors’ appointments and were not getting the ambulance service they were paying for. He said he had little faith GPs and nurses would get there any quicker, adding: “Never mind calling for an ambulance, they might as well just call for an undertaker.”

A NEAS spokesperson said: “Ambulance delays are a concern for us. When these delays occur it is because we have clinically assessed the calls and determined that they are not immediately life-threatening. Because they involve elderly people, we are arranging for appropriately qualified staff to visit and help them sooner than we can. This also allows us to focus our resources on those people who have been injured in a fall.

“The reason for delayed responses in recent years has often been due to the high demand of emergency 999 incidents. When so many incidents are assessed as needing such a quick response, it has the unwanted consequence that lower acuity cases that are not assessed as being immediately life-threatening have longer waits. NHS England has attempted to address this with the introduction of the new ambulance response standards, which have come into effect this winter.

“As a result, we have started a review - along with our NHS commissioners - to ensure that we have sufficient ambulance and staffing resources available. We expect this piece of work to be completed early in the New Year and will use it to determine what additional capacity, if any, is needed in the future.”