The North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) has announced that, as of January, emergency ambulance crews will be instructed to take their lunch breaks at hospitals or their nearest ambulance station rather than returning to their base.
NEAS bosses have said that the measure will ‘reduce wasted time for their crews’ travelling back to their bases as-and-when they get meal breaks.
An internal review commissioned by NEAS recently found that reducing travel times could mean that emergency ambulance crews in the area might be able to reach an additional 37 incidents per day.
Staff have been told that they will receive a payment of £5 for every meal they take away from their base.
The new operating procedure is due to last until the end of March 2022 and has been introduced into the Trust after bosses said they were “worried and troubled” by delays some patients had faced in recent weeks.
At a NEAS board meeting on December 9, bosses heard how a woman who had had a heart attack was waiting more than an hour for an emergency ambulance.
The patient was resuscitated when paramedics arrived, but she later died in hospital.
It is not clear if the delay was caused owing to emergency ambulance crews having to wait outside A&Es to hand over patients which they already had in the back of their ambulances, as opposed to a delay being caused due to the respective travelling time – by the responding vehicle – from ambulance bases relative to where the patient was located.
NEAS bosses acknowledged in a report that delays “handing over” patients at hospital A&E departments had “reached the highest levels recorded and continue to put significant pressure on road capacity”.
The extended delays experienced by emergency ambulances crew waiting to hand their patients over to A&E is not isolated to NEAS with Trusts around the country experiencing similar issues.
During the recent periods of exceptional demand, in October alone NEAS took just over 114,000 NHS 111 calls and more than 55,000 emergency 999 calls – the equivalent of 1,774 calls per day, or 74 999 calls per hour.
This is compared to just over 98,000 NHS 111 calls and 45,000 emergency 999 calls in 2019 – pre-pandemic.
Responding to the news, one NEAS employee said:
‘I understand the heartbreak that waiting for us can cause. We are the ones that are attending to these unwell patients, that have waited for longer than they should.
‘But taking away our meal break is NOT the answer.
‘From the 4th of January, we are not allowed to return to our station where our food is refrigerated and some small comforts wait.
‘Ambulance crews are so close to burnout as it is and this is what has been decided will aid this situation.
‘From the 4th of January, I am no longer allowed to have a hot meal or cup of tea during my 12-hour shift, on my unpaid break.
‘We are being forced to eat soggy sandwiches with no access to any facilities.
‘I love my job but this is wrong.’
Vicky Court, NEAS’ deputy chief operating officer, said:
“We are making these temporary changes to reduce the risk of patients being harmed by ambulance delays.
“The safety of patients and our staff is our top priority and the evidence is overwhelming that making this temporary change will allow us to see more patients quicker and reduce the potential harm that occurs when there are long waits for an ambulance.”
A review of meal breaks found that over three days, “emergency crews could potentially be unavailable for nearly 60 hours due to the travelling time associated with returning to their base station for their breaks”.
NEAS said that was equivalent to responding to 37 additional incidents each day.
She said the change would not be permanent and hoped it would also have a positive impact on staff health.
Ms Court added: “In a bid to try and avoid these delays, crews are often sent late for their breaks, impacting on their health and wellbeing, so we think this temporary measure will also improve the wellbeing of some of our staff who have not been able to take a proper break for several hours because the distances they have to travel back to their base location.”
However, some NEAS staff have told Emergency Services News that the measures have been introduced without consulting staff or unions and that they are concerned about what impact these new measures will have on the welfare of emergency ambulance crews.
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