Veteran paramedic calls for national inquiry into patient deaths caused by extreme delays

A veteran paramedic has called for a UK-wide independent inquiry to be launched into ambulances services and the number of patient deaths being caused by extreme waiting times.

Rob Harrington, 59, who works for the Welsh Ambulance Service, was taking part in the 24-hour walk-out being staged by almost 1,500 GMB Union members over pay and working conditions on Wednesday.

Mr Harrington (pictured) claimed thousands of “people are dying” every year because of problems which have been allowed to accumulate.

Speaking from outside Bassaleg Ambulance Station in Newport, he said: “The problem of queuing up outside hospitals has been going on since I started 16 years ago, and it’s just been cumulative over the years.

“The past two to three years in particular has got to the point where we’ve just had to come out and say something.”

Mr Harrington said he did not want to be on strike but was thankful for the opportunity to make the public aware of how serious the situation now is.

“When you’re queuing up outside hospitals, sometimes you can be there for 12 hours.

“You’re basically stuck inside this little room, no bigger than a prison cell, sometimes with very challenging, very demanding patients.”

“Often you can find yourself just one member of staff on a fully functional ambulance with a very challenging patient and there’s nowhere to turn to.

“But we see every patient as though they’re a friend or family member, so we give as much to them as we possibly can.

“But there’s a time when emotionally, physically, you’re mentally exhausted and that has a huge impact with a lot of people having to take time off sick and get counselling.”

Mr Harrington recalled a time only a few days ago when he said 20 ambulances were waiting outside the Grange Hospital in Cwmbran, with no room for more vehicles in the waiting area.

He claimed the strike was “about every member of the British public”.

“It may be tomorrow, next week, next month and your family member or your relative needs emergency care at the most important time of their life,” he said.

“And it’s shocking to know that it’s a matter of keeping your fingers crossed that your 999 ambulance isn’t one of those stuck outside a hospital.

“I think it’s an outrage. It shouldn’t be like this.”

“I think some politicians absolve themselves of responsibility,” he added.

“The real worry is, are they absolving themselves of responsibility because they know how many people are dying on a weekly basis?

“Over a year, we’re talking six figures.

“I personally believe there needs to be an independent inquiry into how many deaths there are.

“We’ve had it with the Grenfell Tower tragedy. We had it with the Shropshire maternity scandal, and we need to have one now with the ambulance service into how many people are dying – because people are dying.

“And that’s why we’re on strike. It’s not just about the money. It’s about working conditions and it’s about the people that we care for.”

In January, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said the crisis in urgent care could be causing “300-500 deaths a week” – an excess deaths figure disputed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

One report this week was of a woman from Barry who watched her husband die in front of her while begging a 999 call operator for two hours to send an ambulance, only to be told there was none currently available.

Lesley Weekley, 73, lost her spouse of 43 years Rob in the early hours of last Wednesday.

She told Wales Online that when paramedics arrived they told her Rob would have likely survived had they been dispatched immediately.

Mr Harrington said issues of pay were important to address because of the “knock-on effect” it has on staff recruitment and retention.

“My crewmate stood behind me is a fully qualified emergency medical technician.

“She goes to cardiac arrests, we help deliver babies, we go to people who are having a mental health crisis, all manner of things you could imagine.

“She’s getting paid £12.50 an hour, which is £2 above the minimum wage. That’s simply not right.”

Ambulance technician of over a decade, Giles George, who was standing on the picket line outside Brecon Ambulance Station said: “The fact that it’s a vocation only gets you so far.

“We see things on a daily basis that members of the public will never see – and should never see – like really nasty suicides and traumatic RTCs (road traffic collisions).

“And we just want to feel recognised and valued.”

GMB Union’s South West and Wales representative, Nathan Holman, said: “The government in Westminster just will not listen and so we’ve been given no choice but to strike to make them listen.

“But this has been a very, very difficult decision for our members to make, they don’t want to be here.

“We are here today because of pay, but that is linked in with the fact that we can’t recruit people because the pay is not sufficient to attract people in.

“There’s been a 30% pay cut for ambulance and NHS staff over the last 10 years, because it hasn’t kept in line with inflation.

“I’ve had members contact me worried that they can’t afford to get food for their children so they are using food banks, or they can’t pay their mortgage so they might lose their homes – clearly something is wrong here.

Health is devolved in Wales but Mr Holman said the problem lies with Westminster.

“The budget the Welsh Government gets comes from Westminster,” he said.

“Could the Welsh Government do things differently? Better? Yes, potentially.

“But ultimately, they still need the budget from Westminster to be able to do the things that they want to do and until Westminster recognises that NHS and ambulance trusts are underfunded, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

The UK Government’s proposals to bring in minimum service levels during strike action has also “infuriated” workers, Mr Holman said.

Striking ambulance staff are already required to attend the most serious emergency call-outs.

The Welsh Government has invited health unions on Thursday to discuss the offer of a one-off cash payment for workers, but have insisted they will be unable to increase wages unless they receive more funding from the UK Government.

Unions are still demanding an inflation-busting pay rise, of around 19%.

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