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St John volunteers step in to help ailing ambulance service; HEALTH.

THE under-pressure Welsh Ambulance Service has been forced to turn to St John Ambulance volunteers to provide frontline services because of severe staff shortages, the Western Mail can reveal today.

Up to five crews from St John Cymru are working alongside paid paramedics and technicians in a bid to improve response times.

The agreement between the Welsh Ambulance Service and St John Cymru emerged as the latest performance figures this week are expected to show December's response times have deteriorated further.

The St John crews are being used to transfer non-urgent patients to hospital, freeing up more paid ambulance crews to answer emergency 999 calls.

They will also help to offset staff shortages until the end of the month while the ambulance service recruits and trains new employees.

Critics on all sides of the debate said more money must be made available for the service.

Dave Galligan, head of health in Wales at Unison, said: "There have been issues about resources for a number of months, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. There were cost pressures, causing the non-filling of vacancies.

"Our understanding was that the vacancies were being filled. We need to check whether that's being done. There needs to be an examination of how easily they are being filled.

"This is part of a systemic failure that comes back to haunt the Welsh Ambulance Service, but isn't their fault."

Mr Galligan said more than 5,000 hours were lost in December alone in Wales, where paramedics were stuck in A&E departments, waiting to hand over patients to hospital staff.

"It's a significant amount of available ambulance cover. It's not productive to have a crew held up withapatient in hospital. If you translate that into the benefits of extra crews on the road, you wouldn't have needed the extra support from St John Ambulance."

Conservative health spokesman, Jonathan Morgan AM, said the Welsh Ambulance Service badly needed improved computer technology to help them better deploy crews.

He said: "When someone needs an ambulance, the control rooms don't know where the nearest one is. That has to be resolved quickly. We are the only part of the UK that doesn't have that technology."

Liberal Democrat spokesman for health, Peter Black AM said the Assembly Government must act quickly to get the service up to scratch.

He said: "There are a number of bids for capital funding which have been sitting on the minister's desk for months.

"Unless they get that investment they will continue to miss their target times and be reliant on volunteers to deliver a much needed service."

Keith Dunn, chief executive of St John Cymru, said it had seen an increase in requests for help from the Welsh Ambulance Service.

He said: "It fits in with our aim and our mission and is what St John should be doing - assisting the public."

Ambulance service response time figures for November, were the worst for last year. Published last month they reveal that only four out of 10 ambulances were reaching life-or-death 999 calls in Torfaen within eight minutes.

But the December figures, which are published on Wednesday, are expected to reveal further falls in performance.

In a paper to be considered by the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust this week, chief executive Alan Murray said between November 28 and December 31 emergency activity rose by an average of 82 incidents per day.

He added: "Between November 28 and December 8, across Wales, we experienced an early peak of emergency activity 16.5% higher than in the same period the previous year.

"This was a UK-wide phenomenon, caused by an outbreak of a flu-like virus."

The report added: "In December we experienced levels of extended hospital turnarounds of over 50 minutes and over 20 minutes, respectively 14% and 26% higher than those of our previous peak in February 2007, during which we were forced to declare a single service major incident. They affected all regions including, for the first time, North Wales."

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VOLUNTEER: A St John Ambulance member at a sporting event
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 2, 2009
Words:676
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