AN ambulance boss has apologised over the handling of a plan to change staff’s meal breaks.

North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) chief executive Helen Ray said some crews had faced abuse from members of the public following the announcement last week.

Ms Ray said: “I am dismayed that our crews have received insults. Our media coverage should not have inferred or blamed them in any way for delays that are out of their control. I am very sorry that this has been the case. I have apologised openly to our staff about this and do so here too so they are clear that this was wholly unacceptable.

Read more: North East ambulance crews lost time travelling to base for breaks

“I want to make it clear that our crews are working tirelessly every day to care for our patients. The last two years have been relentless for them during the pandemic and everyone in NEAS deserves to be commended for their efforts under these difficult circumstances."

The Northern Echo:

NEAS announced last week it was planning to make a temporary change to meal break arrangements.

The measure is aimed at freeing up time to attend more emergency incidents.

The service has  been on its highest state of operational alert since July due to increased demand on its services which, along with similar pressure on the region’s hospitals, has left some patients waiting several hours for an ambulance.

Currently, ambulance crews working a ten-to-12 hour shift are stood down so they can go to their base station for two 30-minute breaks.

But with travelling time taking up to an hour, crews can be unavailable to respond to patients for much longer than 30 minutes.

The service has now clarified that ambulance crews are not paid for a rest break but they do respond to emergency calls during their downtime when needed.

The temporary arrangements would see crews sent to the nearest station or hospital during periods when the service is under significant pressure. 

Concerns have been raised by staff members over the changes and how they have been handled by the trust. 

Last week, the union Unison accused the trust of being “heavy handed” over the proposals.

Its North East Ambulance branch said it had received an unprecedented number of calls and emails from staff concerned about the change.

Northern regional ​organiser Ronagh Craddock said: “​Ambulance staff have worked throughout the pandemic, going above and beyond ​responding to 999 calls, attending emergencies and saving lives.  

“To announce these changes just before Christmas, ​without asking staff for their thoughts seems heartless in the extreme.  

“At a time when many of us are hoping to spend this special time of year with close family and friends, many ambulance staff will be working late shifts and overtime to keep us safe​. It is no way to show staff they are valued by the ​trust.

"Ambulance stations across the region are under huge pressure, but it's not paramedic break times that are responsible for the long waits or delays. There simply aren't enough ambulance crews or vehicles to cope with the unprecedented demand on services."   

Ms Ray added: “We have heard an enormous strength of feeling from our staff in the last week about the pressures that they have been facing. Our actions have always been motivated by keeping patients safe as well as looking after our employee wellbeing.

“I am upset and angry that some have interpreted this as a reason to blame our crews for ambulance delays. This cannot be further from the truth and during such difficult and challenging times we are all trying to ensure that the NEAS is not overwhelmed over winter.

“We are engaging with our union colleagues to look at the proposals further to ensure any and all temporary changes ensure that patient care and staff welfare are considered.”

How is NEAS trying to reduce delays?

Other actions include:

  • working with partners across hospitals and commissioners to address delays in patient handovers.
  • increasing the number of clinicians in the control room to improve triage and review those low acuity calls that do not need an ambulance response.
  • Actively recruiting more staff into the control room and onto the road and across the country.
  • British Telecom has implemented a procedure to reduce call volumes into ambulance control rooms for duplicate calls.
  • Clinically qualified operational managers have been released from non-essential meetings to care for patients and support service staff are undertaking some non-clinical tasks to support these operational managers to focus on improving ambulance response times.
  • Covid volunteers trained and working in the patient transport service
  • Additional support for Covid vehicle cleans while ambulance crews are on a break to minimise vehicle downtime

A recent review over a three-day period found emergency crews off the road for nearly 60 hours – equivalent to being able to respond to 37 additional incidents a day.

The review also looked at scheduled care crews who mainly transport patients to and from pre-planned appointments but regularly support emergency colleagues.

The review found they were unavailable for just over 7.5 hours each day due to the current meal break arrangements.

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