Expenditure on private ambulances doubled last year to almost £14m – leading to calls for more funding.
It comes following news that the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) has implemented the highest level of its emergency escalation plan in response to growing pressures within the health system.
A total of £13,453,000 was spent on private paramedics and ambulances in the 2020/21 financial year, almost double 2019/20’s figure of £7,722,000. However, when compared to 2016/17’s total of £3,553,000, last year’s expenditure represents an almost four-fold increase of 250%.
Independent MLA Claire Sugden said the figures are concerning and we seem to be increasingly reliant on private firms to provide ambulance services for our health system.
“On one hand, it is good that we are taking the necessary steps to provide ambulance services where and when they are needed, but it is disconcerting that the existing ambulance provision within the health service seems unable to meet this demand,” she said.
“Using private companies will inevitably cost more per use. I would like to hear the rationale behind these figures, because if these services could be provided less expensively by improving the ambulance provision of the health service then we should be doing that.
“We have already seen the growing reliance on — and cost of — agency staff in our health service. If inadequate ambulance provision is down to a lack of vehicles and equipment then investment in this area may be necessary to lower costs long-term. We are all well aware of the need to manage our health resources better in our efforts to cut waiting times, improve services and make our health service fit for purpose.”
SDLP health spokesperson Cara Hunter added that while there would be a greater need for services during the pandemic, these costs highlight the huge over-reliance on private services.
“We regularly hear harrowing stories about old or vulnerable people having to wait hours for ambulances. Just this week we heard Health Minister Robin Swann say that the whole service, including NIAS, were struggling to cope with demands for care,” she added.
“Given the fragile nature of our health service surely this £14m could be better spent elsewhere. While investing in NIAS will cost money, it would surely be cheaper in the long-term than continuing to rely on private services.”
Alliance Party health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw said the ambulance service and its personnel had performed heroically in extremely trying circumstances in recent times.
She added: “What these figures do emphasise is the need to proceed with reform of the service, including how first responders are prioritised, to bring it into line with best practice in the rest of the UK and deliver an even more exceptional service in the years to come.”
The Department of Health said: “Demand for emergency ambulance services has increased year-on-year, in line with increased demand across the health service. Further investment will be required to enable NIAS to respond effectively to present and future demand and the Department is working with NIAS to ensure the Strategic Outline Case for a new Clinical Response Model meets public spending requirements. The progression of this programme will be dependent on value for money and affordability.”