Leadership in the service provided by local NHS ambulance trust SECAmb (South East Coast Ambulance Service) was last month branded “inadequate” by the Care Quality Commission after an inspection earlier in
the year.  The trust has been placed in a “Recovery Support Programme”, requiring it to produce an improvement plan setting out what it will do to bring services up to the required standard.

Now ambulance call-out statistics for Hastings and Rye, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, have revealed a desperately stretched service. 

CREDIT: Dave Young

For Category 2 emergency call-outs, which include suspected strokes and heart attacks and represent approximately 60% of 999 calls, NHS guidelines state that patients should wait on average 18 minutes. But in the period from April 2021 to March 2022, people in Hastings and Rother were frequently left waiting for almost an hour
by SECAmb. In postcodes TN34 (central Hastings) and TN35 (Ore, Pett and surrounding villages) the average wait was over 52 minutes. In TN31, covering the Rye area, it was 56 minutes. 

In contrast, residents of Ashford and Brighton had average waiting times for similar call-outs of around 26 minutes.

Call-outs doubled

These figures were obtained by Helena Dollimore, who is on the shortlist of candidates to represent the Labour party in the Hastings & Rye constituency at the next parliamentary election, and are set in a context of hugely expanding patient demand. According to analysis of NHS data by the GMB union, ambulance calls in the south-east region are running at 14 million per year, nearly double the number in 2010. 

This in turn would seem to reflect the proportionate increase of older people in the population, particularly in Hastings and Rother (see census report on page 3). Rates of cardiovascular disease, COPD, stroke and high blood pressure conditions are also higher in Hastings & Rye than in the rest of the region as well as in comparison with England nationally.

Ms Dollimore had a personal reason to make her enquiry. ““Last summer we had a long wait for an ambulance for my dad. While he was OK, this data shows that we were not alone and people across Hastings and Rye are waiting too long. Why should people in Hastings, St Leonards and Rye wait longer than those in Ashford or Brighton? 

“Residents in Hastings and Rye deserve better than what they’ve got under the Tories. Our NHS has been under-funded and under-resourced for over 12 years, leaving staff in impossible situations and people waiting too long for treatment. Our NHS workers deserve more than just clapping, they deserve a fair pay rise and enough resources to provide the best service to NHS patients.”

Unfilled vacancies

She ascribes the length of local waits to short-staffing at SECAmb – not just for reasons of Covid absences but because vacancies are left unfilled. In particular, she points out that the South East region has a vacancy rate for ambulance staff that is much higher than in other regions.

A SECAmb spokesperson admitted last week that the Trust is “focussed on recruiting additional staff across a variety of both frontline and support roles while supporting its staff in their roles to improve retention. 

“As we continue to face periods of high demand, we would like to thank our staff and volunteers for their hard work and commitment. We are sorry that some patients are waiting longer than they should for a response and we are doing everything we can to reach those who need our assistance as quickly as possible, while prioritising our response to our most seriously ill and injured patients.”

The spokesperson maintained that all ambulance services are facing significant pressure and that none are achieving the response time performance expected. But he claimed: “While it is clear that there remains a lot to do to improve our response times and also reduce variation within our own region, it is worth noting that for May this year, SECAmb remains ahead of the national average in the highest three categories of call-out and has among the shortest response times for Category 2 calls.

“The public can help us manage demand by only calling 999 in an emergency. We also urge everyone to make use of alternatives to 999 for help and advice including speaking to their GP, a pharmacist, by visiting 111.nhs.uk or calling 111.”

No surprise

Jason Dicker, GMB SECAmb Branch Secretary said: “The data Helena has collected is not a surprise to GMB.  Our members have seen the impact of national government funding cuts to the ambulance service in Hastings and Rye and have continued to argue for more funding from the government to ensure a more consistent service delivery for all, regardless of where in the region someone lives.

“GMB members working in the service see day in, day out, the impact of these funding cuts, and despite their best efforts know there will be an impact on service users. We continue to call for more government funding for the ambulance service across the board so that our members can provide the level of support they joined the service to deliver.”

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