Ambulance staff leaders are grimly predicting “an absolute disaster” that will see “the collapse” of the emergency service across the whole of the South West this Christmas.
Ambulance workers say they are “petrified” that the over-stretched service will finally fall apart be unable to cope with 999 calls as other factors combine with existing staff shortages to create the perfect storm that could see the emergency rescue grind to a halt and put lives at risk.
Staff fear that the imminent flu outbreak – predicted by health professionals to be the worst in living memory – and the seasonal rise in A&E admissions of festive revellers who have had too much to drink will be the last straw that will break the back of the service.
The shock alert came after ambulance staff penned an alarming open letter to the public, admitting that cuts meant patients were being “left on the floor for hours” and calling for Ken Wenman, chief executive of the South West Ambulance Service Trust, to resign.
Spokesman Gary Palmer warned of fears that the extra calls for ambulances which are expected to come from the new flu epidemic will compound the demand for A&E caused by Christmas drinkers and bring the already hard-pressed 999 service crashing down.
“Ambulance staff in the South West are absolutely petrified that the service is on the point of collapse and any additional external factors could push us over the tipping point this Christmas,” he said.
“We could see an absolute disaster on our hands”.
The dire warning was made after ambulance staff called for the head of their boss in a damning and blunt summary of the perilous state of the emergency service in the West.
The letter, sent by ambulance professionals working for South Western Ambulance Service covering Bristol, Bath, Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, North and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire, is a frank “apology” to families, friends and the community.
Mr Palmer said: “Although we are unfortunately regularly being contacted by members and concerned staff over any number of growing issues at SWAST, we felt this letter summed up the general despair and frustration many staff currently feel from working within a service and role they love.
“The trust is failing to address major issues and the toll from not doing so is having an enormous effect upon increasing numbers of staff, as they consider whether they wish to remain within this particular ambulance service or not.
“The GMB union and its members being ignored by the Chief Executive and the Trust is one thing, but their failing to be able to recognise the numerous issues and the effect they have upon many front line ambulance professionals within its own organisation and the patients they ultimate serve, means that Mr Wenman has clearly not only lost touch or interest with his employees and the service, but has now also lost their respect as well.
“It’s time for the Chief Executive to stand down and for any replacement to be clear on wanting to do more to protect and support the trust’s most valuable resource, its own staff. ”
The letter reads:
“Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes when you see an ambulance attending an incident what it might be like to work for the South Western Ambulance service?
“Although we love what we do, behind the professional facade we portray to the public we are struggling to maintain a crumbling service deliberately being underfunded by the Government and made worse when those over pressured resources and stressed staff are then badly managed locally.
“If you’re unfortunate enough to have to call us, please remember that although we will potentially often be the deliverer of the first high quality care you receive in an accident or illness, we are not only not classified as an emergency service by the Government but not appreciated or cared for by our employer.
“We, as ambulance professionals, are trying to change that. Our union, GMB, are trying to change that, but our employer and our chief executive are ignoring both our complaints and calls for change, so in order to explain to our families, friends and the public and even our employer SWAST we send out our heartfelt apologies:
“To the Public:
“We’re sorry for not getting to you or your loved ones quick enough because there are just not enough of us or we are called out to answer non-emergency calls.
“We’re sorry for the patient and family members that have been left on the floor for hours as a consequence of not getting to you on time.
“We’re sorry when you remain in the ambulance or in the hospital corridor for hours when we are stacked at A&E’s because we can’t complete our hand over.
“We’re sorry that our employer is so poor in managing their resources that they are potentially putting your family at risk.
“We’re sorry you sometimes feel the need to verbally abuse or physically threaten us while we treat your family and friends.
“We’re sorry it appears that SWAST deployments and performance targets are more important than patient care.
“We’re sorry if we arrive at your emergency at the end of a 12-hour shift and possible overrun if we are so tired we potentially fear making a wrong clinical decision.
“To our Family and Friends:
“We’re sorry for not being able to be there when you as family and friends need us. We’re sorry for missing yet another family occasion. We’re sorry we are refused annual leave when we want it meaning no family holiday once again. We’re sorry yet another overrun has meant we are late home again. We’re sorry kids that we couldn’t tuck you in and read you a story at bedtime. We’re sorry for being so tired or stressed when we do finally get home. We’re sorry for the occasions you’ll see us angry, frustrated, unhappy and sad. We’re sorry when we witness yet another colleague’s relationship fail.
“We’re sorry for feeling unsupported by you, our employer. We’re sorry when we are stretched ever more thinly across a greater area of deployment that we don’t hit your targets for reaching critically ill patients in time. We’re sorry for being sick in an environment and workplace that doesn’t allow it.We’re sorry for what must be our annoying constant requests for annual leave and you having to take the time to respond and refuse them.
“We’re sorry for our claims of PTSD. We’re sorry for appearing ungrateful that your recent rota review has in fact destroyed our work life balance even more beyond acceptable limits. We’re sorry for the inconvenience when injuries at work happen.
“We’re sorry if we appear concerned that we will not reach retirement age as a result of physical or psychological injury. We’re sorry for not agreeing with the Chief Executive, and his teams ‘my way or the highway’ attitude towards us as staff.
“And finally in closing:
We’re sorry for saying sorry, time and time again to all of you because nothing ever changes. We’re sorry for having to write this. We’re sorry for asking, but it’s time for everyone to support our call for the Chief Executive to stand down.”
In response, Tony Fox, Chairman of South Western Ambulance Service (SWASFT), said: “Along with the rest of the NHS, ambulance services across the country are experiencing significant pressure. So it was particularly pleasing that in the last national staff survey, SWASFT had the best results across all ambulance trusts in the country for their engagement with staff, for the health and wellbeing of staff and for the resources available.
“We accept that there is always more to be done and we will continue to work closely with our colleagues and listen and respond to their needs. I would like to say thank you to all our people for the excellent job they do in difficult circumstances.
Ken Wenman, Chief Executive of SWASFT, added: “Our staff are our most valuable asset. We simply cannot provide the critical care to our patients without them. We absolutely recognise the pressure that they are under and we are working hard with them and with Unison, the recognised union, to improve resource levels, to improve our response to our patients and to improve the health and wellbeing of our staff.
“We are proud of the way that we work closely with all union representatives on behalf of our staff, including GMB, and so it is disappointing that these comments have gone to the media, rather than to us here at the Trust, especially given the meetings that we have recently hosted with GMB representatives where such concerns could have been raised. We would urge the GMB to re-engage and talk to us directly.”