Union accuses NHS of 'buying cheap' with more than 30% of East of England ambulances off road

  • ITV News Anglia's Matthew Hudson reports on why so many frontline emergency vehicles are off the road

Unions have accused the NHS of "buying cheap" after figures revealed that more than 30% of vehicles belonging to one of the country's biggest ambulance trusts are currently off the road being repaired.

The exclusive figures, obtained by ITV News Anglia, also showed that the East of England Ambulance Service (EEAST) has spent more than £3m fixing breakdowns in its fleet over the past year.

More than 85% of the trust's 499-strong fleet is now made up of Fiat Ducato model ambulances which were first introduced five years ago in a £54m deal.

Some 132 of those Fiat vehicles were undergoing repair when the figures were collated, in addition to 15 Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, and one Renault Master.

The trust said it was taking action to replace the Fiat ambulances with models from different manufacturers.

Reacting to the figures, Glenn Carrington, who chairs Unison's EEAST branch, said that staff morale was at a near all-time low, with many becoming increasingly frustrated with their inability to respond to every emergency.

"As my mum used to say: 'If you buy cheap, you pay twice'. The NHS has bought cheap. The Fiat ambulances aren't fit for purpose," he told ITV News Anglia.

Unison East of England Ambulance Service branch chair, Glenn Carrington, speaking to ITV News Anglia's Matthew Hudson. Credit: ITV News Anglia

"With 30% of the ambulances broken down, plus the hospital delays, plus the lack of morale - it's making our life intolerable.

"I can't emphasise the number of times crews have come on to station to do an overtime shift, and there's no vehicles available. It's unprecedented.

"Trust me, it hurts when we can't do the job we love and deal with the patients we want to deal with. When you're sat in the back of the vehicles, and you're hearing all the jobs coming in, and you can't respond to that - it's soul-destroying."

The modified Fiat Ducatos were rolled out across the country as part of a bid from the NHS to standardise its fleet to a national specification.

The East of England Ambulance Service is planning to replace a further 142 Fiat ambulances later this year. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Welcoming their introduction in 2019, the East of England Ambulance Service promised that that the new vehicles would help reduce CO2 emissions and fuel costs, as well as giving patients smoother journeys.

However, the switch has proved controversial - with many taller members of staff complaining of back pain and scraped knees on dashboards due to the size of the cabs.

The trust has confirmed it has now been given special permission from NHS England to order 99 new ambulances, built on Ford and MAN chassis, which should come into operation over the "coming months".

Plans are also in place to replace a further 142 Fiat ambulances later this year.

"The number of vehicles off-road is a combination of planned and unplanned maintenance," a spokesperson said.

"At times this number can be higher than we would like for various reasons; however, we supply more than 100% of the vehicles required for the total number of crews most days."

A Fiat spokesperson said its vehicles are "extensively used as an ambulance in English authorities" and the company would continue to work "very closely with these important customers".

Judith Holman suffered a stroke two years ago. Credit: ITV News Anglia

With so many ambulances currently being repaired, some crews are now having to use smaller Volkswagen vehicles instead.

However, these vehicles can only transport patients who can sit upright, meaning that those who cannot sit up must wait for a traditional ambulance to become available.

Former patient Judith Holman, 59, said the situation was "unacceptable".

She was at a wedding in Blakeney, North Norfolk, when she suffered a stroke two years ago and was left fighting for her life.

Her sister-in-law Samantha Holman called 999 but was told by the East of England Ambulance Service Trust operator that it would be a two-hour wait for an ambulance.

Instead, the family decided to make the 40-minute drive to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital hospital by car - with doctors later telling Mrs Holman that she would not have survived if she had arrived any later. "30% of ambulance vehicles off the road is ridiculous," she told ITV News Anglia.

"It is terrible and a really big worry. I am lucky I am still here. If you need an ambulance they need to be fit for the paramedics in them. They have a job to do, but can't do it.

"It makes me so angry. It is unacceptable. There is a lot of people who aren't two minutes from the hospital, who might not get the care they need. Something needs to change."

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