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Minister Warns Soldiers Driving Ambulances Isn't A Long Term Solution To Health Service Backlog

Driver training delivered to soldiers to support the NHS in Wales during the response to Covid-19.

5 min read

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart has said that soldiers cannot be expected to continue driving ambulances as a long-term solution to intense pressure on the health service in Wales.

Last week 110 military personnel began driving ambulances in Wales – the third time they have been requested to assist the Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust during the pandemic.

But Hart said that while the armed forces are eager to help in times of crisis and the public find their presence reassuring, it should not be the case that to resolve long-standing NHS capacity problems, the Welsh government “give the Ministry of Defence a ring”.

Winter is typically the busiest time of year, but summer also saw an unprecedented demand with a huge spike in 999 calls in August. The Welsh ambulance service recorded its second worst response times to immediately life-threatening 'red' calls since new targets were introduced in 2015, according to a report by WalesOnline.

Hart pointed to challenges with social care as a key reason for the heightened pressure on the ambulance service, and urged the devolved Welsh government to set out plans to improve care services. 

In September a £48m package of funding to support social care in Wales was announced by the Welsh Government, and there will also be £700m a year more to spend by 2024-25 from the national insurance tax hike to fund clearning the NHS backlog and social care.

First minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, said earlier this year he had a social care plan ready to go but wanted to know more about how it would relate to the benefits system before setting out further proposals.

“Everybody is looking in the direction of Cardiff now to say okay you’ve got the money, now what you going to do because in many respects where there is a significant amount of pressure on the ambulance service, it’s having an effect on general hospitals [too], it’s having an effect on primary care and A&E," Hart said.

"If we can get to grips with that social care problem we start to ease the blockage further down the chain.”

He described the current backlog as a “Welsh government challenge” and he hoped the nation’s Labour-run government would work “hard and fast” to come up with solutions.

The problems facing the ambulance service include occasional staff shortages due to the pandemic, and the difficulty in transferring patients when they arrive at hospitals. Because ambulances are left waiting in queues, they then cannot be deployed to other 999 calls. 

Hart believed the state of emergency created by the pandemic meant that people may not find it as unusual as they might otherwise to see military support in the health service, but hoped that at some point in the future, such measures would need to be reconsidered. 

"I think there will be a moment when hopefully the pandemic is behind us, and it’s probably at that stage that the Welsh government has to address some of the fundamental challenges facing the ambulances services without – and I’m not suggesting it would – thinking the problem can easily be resolved by giving the MoD a ring," he continued. 

"I don’t think that’s a long term solution that would work for the Welsh government or anybody else. There are some big issues confronting the health service which will need answers which it would be unreasonable to expect the MoD to provide solutions to."

The latest military support offered to the ambulance service, which will run until November, is the third deployment of the armed forces to support the Welsh ambulance service since the pandemic began in March 2020, when 68 personnel were deployed to help the service. This time Hart wrote to the Welsh government proactively to offer the services of the MoD if they required it.

From last weekend, 50 army personnel will link in with paramedics after a Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) deployment was authorised, with a further 60 defence personnel from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to join.

As ambulances are run with two paramedics, or one paramedic supported by an ambulance technician or urgent care assistant, a military driver can free up a member of staff to go and crew another ambulance. This means the fleet levels on any one shift can be increased.

Hart said that the uncertainty of Covid meant it was difficult to say whether further military deployment would be needed, and that they would always be available at times of crisis, but he hoped there would eventually be a reduced need for such measures. 

"I think once we are able to declare something resembling closure on Covid then I think the need for ongoing reliance on the armed forces will diminish – [it] should diminish," he added.

Chief Executive of the Welsh Ambulance Service Jason Killens said: “We’re proud and grateful to be working alongside the military once again, who did a superb job of assisting us on two occasions previously last year.

“Winter is our busiest time, and having military colleagues on board once more will bolster our capacity and put us in the best possible position to provide a safe service to the people of Wales.”

The armed forces have also supported the vaccine rollout in Wales earlier this year and during the pandemic to provide specialist planning advice, deliver personal protective equipment and supportted the community testing programme in Merthyr Tydfil.

A Welsh government spokesperson said: “The Secretary of State for Wales wrote to the Welsh Health Minister on the 13th September drawing our attention to the use of armed forces personnel to assist ambulance services in parts of England.

"He proactively offered similar support to Wales. We are extremely grateful to the MoD personnel for their assistance which, as with all MACA arrangements, will be time limited.”

A report on website Nation Cymru quoted Health Minister Eluned Morgan saying it was "strange" that Hart had made comments about the Welsh health services not relying on the MoD since he wrote them a letter to let them know they were avaiable. 

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