Ambulance services are facing winter-like pressures, a health minister has said, as emergency response teams come under huge added strain because of the recent hot weather.
The heatwave, which is expected to peak on Monday or Tuesday, has intensified problems with Covid-hit medical staff and ongoing delays accessing A&E departments.Health minister Maria Caulfield told the Commons that “it’s extremely concerning for the months ahead”.
She added that she would be “meeting all 11 ambulance trusts over the coming days to make sure that they have the capacity and resilience they need”.
Answering an urgent question from Labour about ambulance services and the declaration of a national heatwave emergency, she said steps have been taken to prevent services from becoming overwhelmed.
Ms Caulfield said: “In terms of urgency, we have procured a contract for an auxiliary ambulance service with a total value of £30 million which will provide national surge capacity if needed to support the ambulance response during periods of increased pressure. So, that is there should we need it.”
“These are the sort of pressures we would normally expect to see in winter and we’re seeing them in the summer months, which is usually their down time and it’s extremely concerning for the months ahead as we do head into winter," she added.
Widespread disruption, including road closures and cancellations and delays to rail and air travel are also possible from the heatwave, as temperatures look set to soar into the mid-30s or above.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Tory underfunding has left emergency services unable to cope, as he confirmed that every ambulance service is now on the highest level of alert.
The highest level of alert for ambulance trusts is known as Resource Escalation Action Plan Level 4, which indicates a "potential for failures" within the service.
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know
Mr Streeting criticised new Health Secretary Steve Barclay for not being present to answer as a “disgrace”, asking "what is the government doing to provide additional support to A&Es during this heatwave?”
Labour’s Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, noted: “24 hours in A&E used to be a (reality) TV programme, now it’s government policy.”
The Met Office has extended its amber warning for extreme heat for much of England and Wales, so it is now in place from Sunday until the end of Tuesday. It warns that it could cause health problems across the population, not just among people vulnerable to extreme heat, leading to potential serious illness or danger to life.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper called on the minister “to convene an urgent meeting of Cobra (Civil Contingencies Committee) today to protect patients and paramedics who are really operating at the brink”.
Ms Caulfied said she has set out a heatwave plan for England, published earlier this year, adding: “We are making sure that all NHS trusts are prepared.”