AMBULANCE drivers are so overworked and underpaid that thousands are forced to take time off because of severe stress. Their union the GMB is demanding that paramedics are allowed to retire at 60 like firefighters and police.

Meanwhile, the severe shortage of ambulances and ambulance staff has resulted in the NHS spending as much as £80m a year on private ambulances, new data shows, leading to fears of lower care standards.

‘If any patients lose their lives as a result,’ the GMB warned yesterday, ‘the blame falls fairly and squarely on an uncaring Tory government for not dealing with the stress and anxiety of our frontline emergency staff.’

The union has revealed 12 per cent of all ambulance staff were forced to take a total of more than 80,000 sick days due to stress last year. A total of 2,468 paramedics and health care assistants – or one-in-eight workers – had to take time off due to stress. The total number of days lost across England was 81,668 in the financial year 2016/17.

Kevin Brandstatter, GMB National Officer, said: ‘These disturbing figures once again prove what we already know – that our frontline ambulance workers are in the midst of a stress and anxiety epidemic.

‘They are consistently overworked, underpaid and expected to do incredibly difficult jobs – such as dealing with the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster or Manchester bombings – without adequate staff or resources. ‘It’s no wonder almost 12 per cent of the whole workforce is sick with stress.

‘Theresa May needs to stop burying her head in the sand and start listening to front-line ambulance workers. Workforce numbers haven’t kept pace with sharply rising demand. Forcing ambulance staff to work up to the age of 68 is another major cause of stress. There’s no justification for treating paramedics differently to comparable physically demanding front-line roles.

‘The absences caused by staff shortages and overwork are already contributing to potential delays in attending incidents. The absence of staff due to stress will only compound this situation.

‘It’s time paramedics and other ambulance staff got the support they deserve.’

Widespread shortages of paramedics and rising demand forced England’s ten NHS ambulance trusts to spend £78.4m in 2016-17 on help from private ambulance firms to supplement their own services.

That is a 22% increase on their £64.2m outlay in 2014-15, according to data obtained under freedom of information laws. South Central ambulance service spent the most on private services last year – £16.3m, up from its £13.6m outlay the year before and £12.3m in 2014-15.

Dr Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine which represents A&E staff, said: ‘It is concerning that trusts are having to use part of their budget for private ambulances, and serves to highlight the current levels of demand emergency departments are facing.

‘The Care Quality Commission has previously highlighted that they may use less qualified staff or staff whose qualifications aren’t regulated or restricted. They may be poorly equipped, have poor clinical governance, poor infection prevention, and a lack of, or inappropriate, equipment.’