More than 200 Army personnel to be deployed to tackle Scottish ambulance crisis

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Scotland - Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA
Scotland - Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA

More than 200 British Army servicemen, firefighters and even taxis are to be drafted in to tackle a dire shortage of ambulance drivers in Scotland that has left the sick and dying waiting hours for help.

Humza Yousaf, the SNP's Health Secretary, told MSPs that 103 military personnel would be used to drive vehicles and provide logistical support "to free up our paramedics and technicians to focus solely on providing patients with the best clinical care".

He also announced that both volunteer and full-time firefighters would be drafted in to help along with "private contractors such as taxi companies" to ferry sick Scots in non-emergency cases.

But it emerged that he had hugely downplayed the involvement of the British Armed Forces after Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, disclosed that 225 personnel were actually being dispatched to help the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS).

Mr Wallace said that 114 personnel, including drivers and support staff, would carry out non-emergency driving roles. A further 111 will operate mobile testing units, freeing up ambulance staff who currently perform this role.

'Far more should have been done earlier'

The Unite union, which represents ambulance service staff, welcomed Mr Yousaf's decision to ask for the support of the British Army and fire service but added: "The reality is that it has been a delayed response, and far more should have been done earlier."

The Health Secretary also announced that more space would be freed up in hospitals to create temporary admissions wards, meaning patients can be admitted more quickly.

However, Jamie McNamee, Unite convener at the ambulance service, asked: "If the Minister is also seriously suggesting that we can simply free up space inside our hospitals, then it begs the question as to why wasn’t this done before?"

Mr Yousaf's statement to Parliament on the crisis came only hours after performance against waiting times targets at Scotland's accident and emergency departments fell to a new low.

Only 71.5 per cent of people who went to A&E in the week of Sept 12 were seen and subsequently discharged or admitted to hospital within four hours. This figure fell to only 44.8 per cent at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland's largest hospital.

A shortage of A&E beds had led to ambulances carrying sick patients being stacked up outside hospitals for hours, waiting for a bed to become free.

During this time they are unable to respond to other emergency calls, with Unite claiming last week that Scots faced an average six hour wait between dialling 999 and being admitted to hospital. In one shocking case a pensioner died when it took 40 hours for an ambulance to arrive.

'Unrelenting pressure'

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine yesterday warned a thousand extra hospital beds are needed to help relieve the "unrelenting pressure" facing emergency departments. It said A&E units are struggling because there are too few beds elsewhere in hospitals.

Mr Yousaf last week appealed to Scots to think twice before calling for an ambulance and Nicola Sturgeon admitted that she was finalising plans to call in the British Army under the Military Aid to Civil Authorities (MACA) protocol.

Disclosing the true scale of the military's involvement, the Ministry of Defence said the 114 personnel carrying out driving duties would each "be paired with a clinical professional".

They will start on Saturday and are expected to be providing support for "a couple of months". They will focus on the Central Belt, primarily Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Arran, Fife and Edinburgh.

The other 111 personnel, including from 2 Scots, will support the continued delivery of mobile testing units to help identify infections and break chains of transmission.

They will start next Wednesday and be deployed primarily round Glasgow and Edinburgh. The military has significant experience of setting up and running testing programmes across the UK, including in Scotland last year.

'Our Armed Forces are once again stepping up'

Mr Wallace said: "Our Armed Forces are once again stepping up, demonstrating their versatility as we support the Covid-19 response across the UK.

"We are proud to work alongside the dedicated men and women at the Scottish Ambulance Service as they continue to provide a lifesaving service to the people of Scotland."

Brigadier Ben Wrench, Commander of Joint Military Command Scotland, said: " Our servicemen and women, drawn from units in Scotland and elsewhere, are always proud to support the NHS and the other emergency services."

Mr Yousaf also used a parliamentary statement to announce an extra £20 million for the ambulance service, the deployment of around 100 paramedic students to help in control rooms.

But Mr McNamee said the setting up of field hospitals and other temporary admissions units were "absolutely essential in our view or we fear the existing problems will simply get worse." He warned: "The announcement provides insignificant clarity on all these concerns, and winter is coming."

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