It’s long been known that paying for agency nurses to plug staffing gaps has left undermanned hospitals with large bills – but what has been less heralded is a similar situation among ambulance trusts.
As we report today, South Central Ambulance Trust, which covers Hampshire, has reported that it has so far this financial year spent almost £7m on ‘private providers’.
To the layman, that means either private ambulance firms, or in some cases charitable organisations such as St John Ambulance.
And what it certainly also means is that Scas, sadly, does not have enough paramedics of its own to do the job.
Firstly, it’s important to point out that the issue here is not safety – there is no suggestion that the staff bought in are better or worse than the inhouse paramedics.
But as a Unite union rep points out, it’s worrying if this shortage is indicative of low morale, and consequently people leaving the service. It’s self-evident that paramedics have a crucially important job; a temporary slump in numbers can happen for many reasons, but if it becomes a long-term decline in staff it needs to be addressed fast.
The other factor that causes concerns is not now, but in the future. The trust is forecast, partly due to this spending on private providers, to run a deficit for the first time in many years.
As we know from public bodies both locally and nationally, when deficits are racked up, cost-cutting follows. It will be harder to offer better wages to aspiring paramedics or inducements to those already on the staff if belts are being tightened – most workers know that when budgets are tight one of the first things to go is the annual pay rise.
This issue needs to be looked at from the national perspective. The NHS needs to ensure that it is fully recognised that being a paramedic can be a hugely rewarding career – and if that is not the case, it needs to make it so. And it needs to provide hard cash to fund it.
We do not want to see another health trust succumb to slipping into the red. But perhaps we must recognise that all of us may have to pay a bit more to prevent this.