The 10 ambulance trusts in England spent almost a quarter of a billion pounds on hiring private ambulances in the past three years, a trade union has found.
An FOI request put forward by the GMB union, found that £235m was spent on private ambulance hires between 2015 and 2018.
The top spending were South Central Ambulance Service, which spent £69m between 2015 and 2018, followed by South East Coast Ambulance with £35.5m and North West ambulance service, with over £29m.
A similar FOI request by the Press Association last year found that the English ambulance trusts gave £78m to private firms providing private ambulances in 2016/17.
GMB national officer Rachel Harrison called the findings ‘a disgrace’ and said the money could instead have been spent on recruiting and retaining staff and purchasing new ambulances.
She said: ‘GMB has members in these private companies and they tell us of underequipped ambulances, poorly maintained, staffed by overworked and underpaid, and sometimes untrained staff.
‘GMB calls on ambulance trusts to stop giving contracts to private companies and to bring all outsourced work back in house.’
The Government recently invested £36.3m to help trusts in England purchase around 256 new vehicles.
However, Alan Howson, executive chairman of the Independent Ambulance Association, said that ‘independent ambulance providers are regulated by the Care Quality Commission to the same standards as NHS ambulance trusts and they’re subject to spot checks by NHS ambulance trusts to ensure they’re meeting the required standard’.
He added: ‘The use of private providers represents both a good investment and excellent value for money for NHS ambulance trusts, particularly to meet peaks in demand or additional cover.’
Commenting on the figures, Dr Adrian Boyle, chair of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine care committee, said that although it is ‘concerning’ trusts had to use their finances to pay for private ambulances, this ‘highlights the current levels of demand emergency departments are facing’.
BMA analysis published earlier this year showed that the NHS experienced the ‘worst winter on record’, with A&E departments registering 7.9m attendances from August 2017 to May 2018.
Dr Boyle said: ‘Under-resourced departments are struggling with overcrowding and ‘exit block’ (when patients cannot be moved in a timely manner to a ward), which means patients are waiting for longer to be seen, and ambulances cannot offload patients quickly, because there is simply no room for them.’
The NHS could save as much as £300m by 2020/21 if more patients were treated at the scene or better assessed over the phone when calling 999, according to Lord Carter’s review on the service, published last month.