Ambulance crew meal break plan attracts criticism

A temporary change to meal break arrangements for ambulance service workers is being made to reduce the risk to patients amid sustained significant pressures being felt across the NHS.

Tuesday, 21st December 2021, 10:24 am
Updated Tuesday, 21st December 2021, 10:25 am
North East Ambulance Service.
North East Ambulance Service.

North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) has been at REAP level 4, the highest status of operational alert, since July due to increased demand on the services and similar pressures felt across the region’s hospitals causing delays in handing patients over and being unavailable to attend further patients in the community. This has resulted in some patients waiting several hours for an ambulance response.

A recent review of meal break arrangements over a three-day period found 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.

The review also looked at scheduled care crews, who mainly transport patients to and from pre-planned appointments but regularly provide support to their emergency colleagues in transporting patients to hospital who do not require clinical interventions en route to hospital, and found they were unavailable for just over 7.5 hours each day due to the current meal break arrangements.

NEAS is therefore introducing a temporary measure in the New Year to try and improve this whilst it continues to operate at the highest level of escalation.

The change, which comes into effect on Monday, January 3, until March 31, will see ambulance staff being asked to stand down for a break at hospital or their nearest ambulance station rather than return to base. In return, staff will receive a £5 payment for each break they take away from their base location.

Vicky Court, 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.

“This is not a permanent change. It will only last over winter up to the end of March while we continue to experience the enormous pressures upon our service.

“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.”

But Cllr Mark Mather, ward member for Wooler on Northumberland County Council, said: “I am extremely concerned about the change in meal breaks for front line crews.

“Our nearest hospital is well over an hour away, forcing patients from the north and rural areas to wait the longest and spend more time in an ambulance before arriving at hospital.

"With your new plan, crews may have a break after travelling from Berwick with a patient and then be allocated a job near to the hospital and not travelling back to the north area. This will leave the area with the furthest distance to travel to hospital with the least amount of cover, causing the possibility of loss of life.”