Hopes for air ambulance boosted as campaigners are offered helicopters
Campaigners for a Northern Ireland air ambulance service have secured credible offers of a helicopter, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
The Motorcycle Union of Ireland (MCUI) team, fronted by the late Dr John Hinds, has had numerous approaches, including at least one that could evolve into the provision of a service, subject to proper planning.
One problem lies, however, with finding the £2.2m needed each year to maintain the aircraft.
The assistant medical director for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, Dr Nigel Ruddell, who is also a MCUI member, said a fully-integrated air emergency trauma service would be welcomed.
"We've had a couple of serious proposals for the introduction of an air ambulance service from community groups, but for it to be successful it requires long-term sustainability and integration with the wider health service," he said.
"The MCUI team feels that the rapid transport of critically injured patients is of benefit given that we've made use of it several times in the past couple of years, including last weekend.
"We believe in the clinical model of care such a service could provide and we have demonstrated our willingness to work with it but it requires a lot of work from the rest of the system in order to make sure that the advantage of having a helicopter is not lost because the rest of the infrastructure is not there to support it."
A statement released to the Belfast Telegraph by the Department of Health has confirmed that the minister hopes to make a decision on the provision of an air ambulance service within months.
In theory it could lead to an unusual situation where a community group supplies a helicopter that the department maintains on a day-to-day basis.
Dr Hinds, one of the 'flying doctors' of Irish road racing, lost his life on July 4 - the day after being involved in a crash while providing medical cover at a Skerries 100 practice session, near Dublin.
The 35-year-old anaesthetist from Tandragee, who worked as a consultant at Craigavon Area Hospital, had led the campaign for an Air Ambulance Service in Northern Ireland.
And, in the weeks before he died, he met the Health Minister Simon Hamilton to discuss it.
A subsequent online campaign backed by his former partner Janet Acheson (35), an obstetrician at Daisy Hill Hospital, his family and colleagues, has now attracted more than 63,000 signatures.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, said the matter was currently under consideration.
"Work is ongoing to consider the feasibility of the provision of an air ambulance service and looking at costs of potential options is a key part of this process," she said.
"Once this work is completed, departmental officials will prepare a comprehensive report on the potential options and this will be given due consideration by the Minister over the coming months."
It is estimated that the service would cost £2.2m a year to run. The Irish Coastguard was scrambled to the Armoy Road Races at the weekend after racer Ian Simpson suffered a serious head injury and had to be airlifted to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital.
Dr Hinds' fellow 'flying doctor' at motorcycle road races was Lurgan GP Dr Fred McSorley.
He told the Belfast Telegraph last week that his close friend would have become the clinical director of the NI Helicopter Service had he lived.
Dr Hinds was trained in pre-hospital trauma care and voluntarily gave medical support at motorcycle races in Northern Ireland and several races in the South.
Throughout his life, he campaigned for Northern Ireland to get its own air ambulance, as it remains the only region of the UK devoid of this service.
Air ambulances can respond to crisis faster and more effectively than any other type of ambulance - dramatically increasing a person's chances of survival.
The MCUI motorbike racing medics recently launched a campaign to encourage others to donate blood in memory of Dr Hinds.
Medics, including Dr Ruddell, who joined the team in 2000, gave blood at the headquarters of the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service in Belfast last Wednesday.
"We have been overwhelmed with the public support for doing something positive in the wake of John's loss and right now, donating blood is a very personal and appropriate way for anyone to continue his good work," the GP said.