AN under pressure ambulance service in the North East has revealed that it is still asking patients suffering from suspected strokes or heart attacks to get relatives to drive them to hospital after continued pressures on medical staff.

The North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), who oversees callouts all across the region, said it brought in the measure after new year demand and coronavirus overhang led to some patients waiting on average for an hour, despite the crew arriving within 18 minutes.

Its medical director, Dr Mathew Beattie, says that the impact of patients waiting is linked to a ‘routine’ demand over the new year that’s seen each year, as well as staff sickness linked to the Omicron variant.

Read more: Apology to NEAS staff over plans to change meal breaks

In regular years, the medical service would scale up and down an escalation plan as demand for crews increased and decreased, but not this year. On New Year’s Eve, the decision was taken to go straight to the highest level and make the ask of patients.

According to the NEAS, this includes alerting patients on calls that were “not potentially life-threatening”, and when there was a delay for an ambulance, whether it was quicker and safer for them to be taken to hospital by a relative or friend.

Dr Beattie said: “The measures we took over the bank holiday weekend were implemented because we have seen activity fluctuating dramatically with surges in demand.

The Northern Echo: Dr Mathew Beattie, medical director of the service, has said that these measures are "last resort" and will only be temporary.Dr Mathew Beattie, medical director of the service, has said that these measures are "last resort" and will only be temporary.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision to take, but when patients are waiting an average of an hour for an ambulance that should be responding within 18 minutes, there is a risk for them coming to harm if they cannot get to hospital quickly.”

Despite having to bring in the measures, Dr Beattie has clarified that no patient harm has been identified as a direct result of the decision.

Following a review on Tuesday (January 4), the NEAS has returned to using its regular escalation plan.

Read more: North East Ambulance Service reports 'worst night' of violent attacks in living memory

Dr Beattie said: “Our performance has not returned to normal and it is still taking us too long to get an ambulance to patients, unfortunately due to this patients remain at risk, which is unacceptable.

“Where it is safe, we will continue to ask patients to make their own way to hospital, however we would never ask anyone to drive themselves to hospital with a life-threatening illness.”

After learning of the “disturbing” situation in the North East, health minister, Gillian Keegan, said she would ask NHS England to investigate the situation.

The Northern Echo: Health minister Gillian Keegan has reportedly asked NHS England to investigate the ambulance waiting times for NEAS.Health minister Gillian Keegan has reportedly asked NHS England to investigate the ambulance waiting times for NEAS.

She said: “We have more ambulance crews in operation than we have ever had, we also gave £55 million extra just for this period to cover staff and make sure we had increases in staff and staffing levels.

“I’ve actually asked NHS England to look at that particular case because that doesn’t sound to me like that’s an acceptable approach. People should be able to get an ambulance if they have a heart attack and that’s why we’ve put that extra funding in place, and why we’ve been building up our ambulance service over the last couple of years.”

GMB union regional officer Micky Hunt said around one in five NEAS staff are off sick.

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

He said: “They are all extremely busy at the moment and I am concerned about the welfare of crews and burnout.”

This most recent revelation comes a month after NEAS chief executive, Helen Ray, was forced to defend ambulance staff after several care workers were abused by members of the public for changed meal break times.

She said: “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: The measures come a month after NEAS bosses had to defend ambulance workers for meal time allowances.The measures come a month after NEAS bosses had to defend ambulance workers for meal time allowances.

“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.”

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