Ambulance services are facing serious shortages of paramedics just as 999 calls hit new peaks and hospitals gear up for a potential winter crisis, new official NHS figures reveal.
The 10 regional ambulance services in England are short of 873 paramedics, data shows, and some are recruiting paramedics from Poland, Finland and Australia to plug gaps in winter services.
The figures emerged as NHS England said 36 A&E units had to temporarily divert new arrivals to other hospitals last week because they could not cope with demand. It was also revealed that 1,061 beds had to be taken out of supply due to the risk of spreading norovirus, the diarrhoea and vomiting bug.
Health unions said the high number of unfilled posts showed paramedics were quitting because of “intolerable” pressures, including working long shifts that can overrun by two hours.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary who obtained the data, said: “These new figures showing there is a national shortage of paramedics will make worrying reading for patients this Christmas. This news comes at a time when ambulance trusts are missing key targets to respond to serious calls, and A&E departments are bursting at the seams.”
The North-West ambulance service has 204 vacancies, the largest number of empty posts, though that is fewer than the 250 it had last year. It told Ashworth that paramedic recruitment is “currently an issue nationally as there aren’t enough trained paramedics available to fill all of the vacancies”. It is “recruiting trained paramedics from European countries including Poland and Finland”.
South Central ambulance service is short of 184 paramedics, a slight improvement on last year’s 217. In recent board papers, the service admitted that finding enough paramedics “is a significant challenge and is diverging from plan in frontline staff”. It said it was “forecasting that the end-of-year vacancy position for clinical staff [paramedics] will be at 18%”. However, growing numbers of Australians are applying to join the service.
South-East Coast ambulance service has more empty posts than last year, with 138 vacancies compared with 105 in 2015. “Unfilled posts are filled by a combination of overtime and the provision of third-party resources,” it said.
Vacancies are also increasing at the London ambulance service. It currently has 135, up from last year’s 112. Overall, vacancies have fallen from 917 last year to 873.
Sarah Carpenter, head of health at the union Unite, said a new pay deal for paramedics announced recently would help mitigate staff shortages.
“However, it’s not just about the money. Older paramedics, who have protected pensions, are voting with their feet because they simply had enough,” she said. “In some ambulance services, we have reports of long, busy shifts, late or non-existent meal breaks, an ever increasing punitive management approach to sickness and conduct and, of course, the continuing levels of sickness due to anxiety and stress.”
Christina McAnea, Unison’s head of health, said only a major NHS cash boost would improve paramedic recruitment which is “at crisis levels”. She said: “With crews stretched far too thinly, the pressures on staff are intolerable. Many experienced paramedics are leaving in search of less stressful jobs, which don’t take such a toll on their health and home lives.
“The end result means delays, with many ambulances taking too long to reach patients with life-threatening conditions.”
The shortage of paramedics is contributing to ambulances often failing to turn up at the scene of medical emergencies within the eight-minute maximum response time, Ashworth added. Just 67.3% of Red 1 999 calls – the most serious sort – received an ambulance within eight minutes in October, when it should be 75%, NHS England data shows.
Delays are also occurring because ambulances are spending record amounts of time outside A&E units with a patient who cannot be discharged because staff inside are so busy.
The East of England, West Midlands and Yorkshire ambulance services all claimed to have no vacancies. East Midlands ambulance service said it had some but could not say how many.
The Department of Health said it had recruited 2,200 more paramedics since 2010 and increased the number of training places by 60% this year.
“In recognition of their increased responsibilities, we recently announced a better pay deal for paramedics as part of our wider commitment to recruiting and retaining paramedics in the future to ensure patients continue to get the very best care,” added a DH spokesman.