MORE than £3.6m has been splashed out by a health trust to ferry thousands of ill or injured people to hospital in taxis, The News can exclusively reveal.
South Central Ambulance Service racked up a £3,601,401 bill over two years to pay for cabs to transport patients.
The move was introduced in Portsmouth in 2016 as a way to ease pressure on stretched ambulance crews.
Officials last night defended the scheme, insisting it was saving Scas cash and improving response times to the most critically-ill patients.
But critics have raised safety fears over the number of people being driven to hospital in a taxi.
Caroline Dinenage, Gosport MP and health minister, said it was important patients were treated ‘in a timely manner’.
But she added: ‘It is concerning Scas is needing to use taxis to transport patients to hospital, especially in emergency situations.’
The taxi scheme is split into two areas, a non-emergency patient transport service for routine trips to hospital and one to take patients with non-serious injuries to A&E.
Data released by Scas to The News, through a freedom of information request, revealed since 2017 223,824 cab rides had been booked through the trust’s ‘patient transfer service’ at a cost of £3.5m.
While the number of taxis called to rush people to hospital A&Es stood at 5,358, costing £101,491.
Patrick Kenny, regional organiser at Unison, was worried about the reliance the NHS was putting on using cabs.
‘Taxis have a place to relieve overstretched ambulance workers in very specific circumstances, but they’re not an emergency service and shouldn’t be treated by NHS trusts like one,’ he said.
‘Ten years of austerity has pushed hospitals to breaking point. Overworked ambulance staff are opting to leave for higher paid, less stressful jobs elsewhere, which ups the pressure on colleagues who remain.
‘But people will keep seeing taxi queues at A&E until the government wakes up to the problem and starts properly investing properly in the ambulance service and its workforce.’
The scheme’s costs have risen by 8.6 per cent from £1,735,359 in 2017/18 to £1,866,042 – a total increase of £130,683.
James Roberts, political director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, was concerned by the news.
‘Hospital bosses should keep a close eye on these costs,’ he said. ‘They must make sure they are getting the very best value for money, for the health service and the taxpayer.’
Since the transport scheme was introduced, response times by Scas have improved significantly, with paramedics on average able to attend the most critically injured patients in 6min 58secs – two seconds faster than Scas’s current target and 21 seconds faster than its average response time in 2017.
Scas insisted the programme was only used to transport patients that were ‘safe to travel, mobile and where no other option was available’.
The service added the average cost of a taxi trip was £16, with taxis on Scas’ 999 service averaging 10 transports a day, while sending out an ambulance would cost £276.27 every time.
A spokeswoman said: ‘Our priority is to ensure that our patients get the right response for their injury or illness or transport when they call, and through the use of taxis we are better placed to ensure that those patients who need the care and transport of our experienced staff are able to have it when they need it most.’