VOLUNTARY schemes which transport patients to and from hospitals may have to be reduced if petrol prices continue to spiral, an ambulance service manager has warned.

His comments came after claims by union leaders in the region that rising fuel prices are crippling the ambulance service's efforts to improve response times.

Steve Whinfield, operations director of North-East ambulance service, said the increases in fuel prices were hitting 120 volunteers throughout the region who provide non-urgent patient transport in their own cars.

"We can only afford to pay them so much and if prices rise they will be out of pocket," he added.

Ray McDermott, Unison branch secretary for the North-East ambulance service said the extra cost of fuel - running at around £400,00 a year - was hampering the service's efforts to meet the Government's faster response time targets.

The extra cash would pay for an extra six front-line ambulances, he said.

Alan Charlton, chairman of the Friends of Darlington Memorial Hospital, said voluntary drivers had seen a 3p a litre rise in fuel prices in recent months and such increases could not be sustained indefinitely.

Mr Charlton said: "We would not wish to reduce the number of patients that we look after but that might have to change," he said.

"The drivers are a great bunch of people - they are committed to what they do - but they haven't had an increase in their fuel allowances since the scheme started."

Mr Whinfield said the fuel increases were causing problems but argued that even if the ambulance service was exempt from petrol tax the Government would simply adjust the service's budget to recognise lower fuel prices.

Alan Lemin, head of passenger transport for the North-East ambulance service, said: "We are currently in discussion with the volunteers to see what we can do for them. At the end of the day they should not be disadvantaged."

Prime Minister Tony Blair has argued that investment in hospitals and schools would be hit if fuel taxes were cut.