21 December 2014
Last updated at 11:27
Target times for ambulances to reach some seriously ill patients could be lengthened, the BBC has learned.
A leaked NHS document includes plans to change the response time for some Red 2 patients – those with “serious but not the most life-threatening” conditions – from eight to 19 minutes in England.
It said the plans had been backed by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, subject to approval by ambulance trust bosses.
The government said no decisions had been made. Labour has demanded answers.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has written to Mr Hunt asking him to explain why the measures – proposed to be brought in within weeks – were not disclosed to Parliament days after he signed them off.
The leaked document, drawn up by the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives and dated 16 December, said NHS England had “explicitly stressed” the plans were confidential and “should not be disseminated beyond the group” involved in the discussions.
The document said there were existing plans for changes “after the general election” in May.
But it said Prof Keith Willett, of NHS England, made an “urgent request” for discussions due to “unprecedented demand” on health services the target for implementing the changes was the first week of January.
By BBC home affairs correspondent Sally Chidzoy
A whistleblower leaked the memo to the BBC because of serious concerns over patient safety, fears the plans were rushed at the height of winter when the service is under unprecedented pressure, and anger over the secrecy involved.
To many in the service, the general ideas are good – but there this concern it should have been a more thoughtful exercise where time was taken to consult widely and the public was involved in the process.
Paramedics say response times distort their ability to treat patients because they have to chase the clock.
They say some illnesses such as strokes, should be moved up a category.
The target for these changes was early January, according to the document, but it seems unlikely the proposals will now go ahead by then.
One ambulance service director, who asked not to be named, told the BBC: “This is being done for political expediency rather than patient safety and it’s being done with the full blessing of Jeremy Hunt.
“This is being pushed through with limited consultation with the chief executives and the health service as a whole.”
- Red 1: Respiratory or cardiac arrest – response in eight minutes
- Red 2: All other life-threatening emergencies, such as stroke and fits – response in eight minutes
- Other response times are agreed locally
There are no plans in the document to change the response targets for Red 1 patients.
The national target is for ambulance trusts to reach 75% of Red 1 patients within eight minutes, and 95% within 19 minutes. The time starts as soon as an emergency call is connected.
Red 2 targets are currently the same, except that the “clock start” can be up to 60 seconds after a call is connected.
The changes proposed in the leaked document for current Red 2 situations are:
- A “small number” to be moved to Red 1 – those where a short extra wait “could have a potentially serious detrimental impact”
- Just under half will keep the 75% within eight minutes target, but trusts will have up to three minutes from receiving a call before the clock starts
- About 40% to have a 19-minute response target, as well as three minutes before the clock must start
The Red 2 category includes conditions such as strokes and fits, but the document does not say which conditions would be put in each of the new categories.
The document said the proposed changes could bring “substantial improvements”.
It also said ambulance trusts would be able to cut the number of fast-response cars being used in favour of deploying more double-crewed ambulances.
However, it acknowledges the plans have not had the “breadth of exposure that would normally be expected”.
Mr Burnham said: “Jeremy Hunt was dragged before Parliament last Thursday to answer questions on NHS winter planning but treated [it] with contempt. It is outrageous that he decided to keep MPs and the public in the dark about a decision he had already taken and one which will have far-reaching implications across the NHS…
“This leak leaves Jeremy Hunt with extremely serious questions to answer. He must do so today.”
In his letter to Mr Hunt, he said that if the health secretary did not have an “acceptable reason for withholding information” he should make a full apology to MPs.
The Department of Health said nothing had been decided but Mr Hunt would “would only agree to proposed changes that improve response times for urgent cases”.