999 calls diverted – ‘Gambling with patients lives!’

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Striking ambulance workers at Greenwich depot in south east London – patients lives will be endangered if ambulances are replaced by Skype
Striking ambulance workers at Greenwich depot in south east London – patients lives will be endangered if ambulances are replaced by Skype

‘AMBULANCE workers skills are being downgraded by schemes which suggest that a video call can be a substitute for an emergency service arriving at your door,’ Gary Palmer Regional Organiser of the GMB union at the South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) told News Line yesterday.

He was responding to alarming new plans unveiled yesterday where patients who ring 999 for an ambulance could soon be assessed via a video-call system such as Skype. Palmer organises the GMB for ambulance workers working for the South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) where the trial is being launched.

Palmer said: ‘This news has just broken. We will consult our members on the proposal and if they decide that they will refuse to take part in this trial then we will take it from there. We are extremely cautious and concerned that this is not a practical use of resources.’

The scheme is proposed to work like this: After ringing 999 and getting through to a control centre, if the controller deems the caller’s condition to be ‘non life-threatening’, rather than being sent an ambulance, instead he or she will be offered a ‘face-to-face’ consultation over the phone.

British Medical Association’s GP committee deputy chair, Dr Richard Vautrey, said doctors had to ‘err on the side of caution’ with video consultations because they do not allow for a proper physical examination.

Ambulances have been missing response times because of savage cuts to staff, ambulance and A&E services. Rather than deal with the funding and staffing crisis in the NHS, the government simply moved the goal-posts.

Changes to the system mean around four million calls that were categorised as ‘life-threatening’ have been re-classified and will not receive the most urgent response. On this Palmer said: ‘The recent re-classification deserved a lot more discussion with the public. ‘Solving the ambulance response times crisis is not as simple as just extending those response time targets.

‘Success is not being gauged any more by the saving of a life. Success is being gauged by achieving a target regardless of the outcome. This leaves front line staff in a very difficult position. They care very much about the service they deliver, but they are being undermined by lack of resources.

‘The stress that they are under is incredible. They are not being appreciated by the government. The one per cent pay cap is an absolute joke and we are campaigning very hard to get a pay rise that they deserve and address the 14% loss over the last seven years.

‘Most ambulance trusts are having problems recruiting, they are looking abroad to recruit staff from middle and eastern Europe and as far afield as Australia. It is not just the pay freeze, NHS cuts have contributed to this crisis in this service. Unless we sort out NHS funding this will continue to get worse, and more and more NHS staff will be forced to leave the NHS.

‘We have had strike action over the removal of breaks and making changes to rotas which prevented ambulance workers from spending valuable time with their families. Ambulance workers need to receive an income on which they can support their family and they need to be able to spend valuable time with their family.’

Dave Wiltshire, secretary of the All Trade Unions Alliance (ATUA) said: ‘This is a huge issue for the whole of the working class. It is not just an issue for ambulance staff or for NHS staff, it is a matter for every worker in every trade union. If this scheme comes in, they will be literally gambling with patient’s lives. All trade unions must insist that this huge change will put the public in danger and it must be stopped.

‘Any attempt to introduce it must be met with industrial action and strike action by all trade unions. Every trade union must enter this fight at once – it is a life or death issue.’