NHS spending on private ambulances has soared in the North East, new figures have revealed.
The North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust’s spending on private ambulance services has more than quadruped between the financial years 2011/12 and 2013/14, figures from Freedom of Information Requests show.
In 2011/12 the amount spent was £639,820, but this rose a staggering 353% to £2,898,275 in 2013/14.
However, other ambulance services maintained lowest levels of spending across the period while one even reduced its reliance on private vehicles.
Over the same period, average ambulance response times - the period between a logged call and the vehicle’s arrival - increased by 51 seconds in the North East.
A spokesperson for the North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust said: “While it’s true that average ambulance response times have increased over the last three years, so too has the volume of calls being dealt with by our contact centre.
“Despite this marked increase in activity, the North East Ambulance Service remains one of the best performing in the country for reaching those patients most in need.
“To put it in perspective, our average response time to an emergency in 2011 was 5 minutes 11 seconds. In 2014, it is six minutes. Both of which are well within the national target of eight minutes.
“Organisations such as Red Cross and St John have been used to a greater extent over the last year, again as a consequence of demand.
“There is also a national shortage of paramedics due to the longer three-year-period it now takes to complete the required degree. NEAS hopes to have an extra 140 paramedics by 2016.”
Official NHS figures show that across the country even ambulances for the most serious cases are taking over a minute longer to reach patients than three years ago.
NHS ambulance services across England are now spending close to double the figure on private ambulances when compared to 2012, with parts of the country seeing a 10-fold rise.
Andy Burnham, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary said: “These figures show just how quickly the NHS is changing under David Cameron. Blue-light ambulance services have traditionally been considered part of the public core of the NHS. It is clear that no part of the NHS is now immune to privatisation.
“When people dial 999, most would expect an NHS ambulance crew to turn up. People have never been asked whether they think blue-light ambulance services should be run by private companies. Before this practice goes any further, there should be a proper public debate about it.
“NHS paramedics have raised concerns over whether private crews have sufficient training, competence and are fully equipped. The Government needs to provide urgent answers to these questions and provide assurances that this practice is not compromising patient safety.”