'Lives put at risk' as Alston ambulance faces the axe

A community-run ambulance in the remote town of Alston is facing the axe as North West Ambulance Services looks to close the ambulance

Barry Pells Alston Market Square
Alston Market Square

A community-run ambulance, which serves as a lifeline to hundreds of residents in England’s most isolated town, is facing the axe.

The remote town of Alston, which sits on the Northumberland-Cumbrian border, has had an agency ambulance for more than 45 years. Staffed by five members of the local community trained in basic life support, it provides a service to around 900 residents and works round the clock, seven days a week.

However, three years ago the training budget for the crew was cancelled and the service’s capability has become increasingly restricted.

So much so that when a woman recently collapsed in Alston’s Front Street, all members of the town’s service could do was keep her warm and dry until an ambulance from Penrith - 20 miles in the other direction - arrived.

North West Ambulance Services (NWAS) now wants to close the ambulance altogether and replace it with a volunteer, unpaid community first responder. It says the ambulance does not meet Care Quality Commission regulations, putting the service’s future firmly in doubt.

A meeting with the League of Friends of the Community Hospital, the NWAS and the NHS Cumbrian Commissioning Group will take place in Alston tomorrow, where proposals will be hammered out between the various organisations and members of the public.

Penrith MP Rory Stewart, who will chair the meeting at Samuel King’s School, said he doubts the NWAS will be flexible to the needs of Alston’s unique circumstances.

“I think they’ll say Alston’s ambulance is untidy and inconvenient,” he said. “Alston is very, very remote and in the winter it could be cut off completely. It would be like the Department for Education saying the town couldn’t have a high school and when the bad weather comes, the children simply can’t go to school.

“Alston is well populated and a hotspot for tourists. Lives have been saved by the ambulance service for nearly 50 years and it seems like madness that bureaucracy is preventing it from working now.”

The agency ambulance responds to emergency calls in Alston Moor, helping patients within the community until ambulance service staff can attend.

On a number of occasions the ambulance and its staff have been critical to the needs of local people thanks to its central deployment from Alston Moor. These emergencies have included the resuscitation of a person found hanging who went on to make a full recovery.

There have been a number of serious motorbike accidents in the area as well as less serious crashes where an early response has provided much-needed first aid at the scene.

Chair of Alston Parish Council Alex Martin says more than 1,500 have signed up to Save Alston Moor’s Ambulance on social media website, Facebook, while 500 people have signed a paper petition in support of its continued work.

She said: “The NWAS is putting lives at risk because it’s not a case of if something’s going to go wrong, it’s when.”

Salman Desai, head of service development for the NWAS said: “Following changes to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) legislation and required standards, the Alston agency ambulance did not meet the minimum standards which prompted the review.

“We are working with NHS Cumbria and the League of Friends to find a safe and sustainable solution for the community of Alston.”

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