By NEIL RIDDELL
NHS Shetland hopes to learn before the end of the month whether the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) is willing to sanction the return of two on-call ambulance crews for the isles, following repeated calls for the service to be improved in the wake of a series of high-profile failures to respond quickly enough to emergencies.
Chairwoman of NHS Shetland Betty Fullerton said a number of staff within her organisation were in “close discussion” with the ambulance service and are due to report back in late March, followed by a report to the NHS Shetland board in May. She would not be drawn on precisely what NHS Shetland is asking the ambulance service to provide in the way of improved coverage but was clear that the status quo is not satisfactory.
The decision to change the service from two crewed ambulances to one was taken in May 2005, with the ambulance crewed by two shifts – one from 7am to 12am and one from 12am to 7am. At the time, NHS Shetland reluctantly accepted the changes after SAS representative Linda Banford described the changes as “a better way of doing things”, before adding “nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
Last week the SAS repeated that the provision of a second crewed ambulance for the Shetland mainland was under consideration after a teenage driver had to wait two hours to be seen by an ambulance team after his car left the road and slipped 30 metres down an embankment.
Last year Sandwick heart attack victim Alan Woodworth had to be taken to the Gilbert Bain by a hospital porter an hour after his wife had made two 999 calls.
Mrs Fullerton said: “We certainly have concerns that the service operating at the minute is not meeting the needs of people in Shetland. This is a view we are putting forward with our colleagues in the ambulance service. [There is] quite a lot of work going on, there will be some discussion coming back to senior management here at the end of March.”
So far, the SAS has set up two community “first responder” schemes in Brae and Sandwick, under which volunteers provide medical help before an ambulance arrives, but that has been dismissed in some quarters as a “sticking plaster” solution.
Mrs Fullerton said she wanted to assure isles residents that NHS Shetland is engaged in “a lot of work” aimed at reaching a resolution. She said: “It’s a national service, run by a national board, but that doesn’t mean that local boards are not involved. Whatever area of service you’re involved in, you want it to be the best possible service for the patient, therefore we would obviously use any resources at disposal at the time to provide the services needed.
“We do need to get the work done to look at the usage and the geography of Shetland which we obviously know very well, and the problems which it shows up. From that we consider what the ambulance service feel is the way forward, but it is a national service with national targets.”
A SAS spokesman said the organisation had nothing more to add to previous statements on the matter, to the effect that it accepts there is a problem and is looking at a number of possible solutions. It has not ruled out the possibility of restoring a second crewed ambulance in light of what appears to be “increased demand”.
Meanwhile, the council is adding its weight to the demand for a second ambulance. Convener Sandy Cluness agreed to raise the matter with the Scottish Ambulance Service on the basis that the current level of service is “not acceptable”.
The issue was raised as a special item at yesterday’s services committee. Councillor Rick Nickerson said he found it “very disturbing” that the driver whose car went off the road at Levenwick last week had to wait over two hours for an ambulance.