Published: 15:12, 04 August 2021
| Updated: 15:57, 04 August 2021
The army has been asked to help a stricken ambulance service.
South East Coast Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust, which covers Kent, has called for armed forces to help as it battles to run its 999 service in the face of acute staff shortages.
A spokesman admitted: "Due to the pressure on our services remaining high, we are currently exploring a range of options to provide us with additional support.
"This includes potential support from the armed forces as well as from other NHS and emergency service partners."
She added: "Our staff and volunteers continue to work extremely hard to ensure we respond to patients as quickly as possible as we see continuing high demand for both our 999 and 111 services."
In common with other ambulance services across the country, SECAmb is experiencing high demand coupled with pressure on its own resources including sickness, annual leave and staff taking time off for Covid-related reasons.
Firefighters from Kent Fire and Rescue Services are already turning up to car accidents and emergencies in fire engines as first-responders because of pressure on the ambulance service.
The Trust covers 3,600 square miles across south-eastern England including Surrey, West Sussex and East Sussex, and is responsible for a population of 4.46 million.
In January it had to call in military personnel to work alongside ambulance staff. The Ministry of Defence approved the request under the Military Aid to Civil Authorities principles.
An initial group of 36 soldiers from the Royal Logistic Corps were trained to join SECAmb staff in ambulances. It was based at the Trust’s Gatwick and Polegate centres.
A week ago, the Trust urged the public to the use NHS 111 online for medical advice as demand for 999 calls continued to rise.
During the week of July 16 to 23 the service received more than 25,599 calls - an average of more than 3,600 calls a day and 24% higher than a similar July week in 2019 before the pandemic.
Patients were also told to only call 999 back if their condition worsened and not to check what time their ambulance will arrive.
The Trust's medical director Dr Fionna Moore said: “Our frontline ambulance crews, 999 and 111 call-handlers and our dedicated volunteer community first-responders are all working extremely hard to ensure we respond to patients as quickly as possible as we see increased demand for our services.
“As ever, we are prioritising our response to patients who are most sick and severely injured. Everyone who needs an ambulance will get one, however, there are other and often better options for people to get the care they need.”
She added: "As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the public can play their part by using 111 online for urgent advice, calling 999 in life-threatening cases and only calling back if their condition worsens."
A number of factors are thought to be contributing to the rise in calls including the warmer weather, an increase in Covid-19 transmission rates in the community and an increase in the public spending time outside as restrictions ease.
Anthony Marsh, the national strategic adviser of ambulance services for NHS England, said: “This is a really tough time for ambulance staff who are working round the clock to deal with an increased number of calls. I’d like to pay tribute to their continued efforts to ensure patients get the care they need."
He stressed it was important for the public to get both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. He said: "It is most important thing we can all do at the moment to protect us, our families and friends and help reduce pressure on the NHS as well.”