Out on a limb?

Image caption Determination: Ben Parkinson with his London 2012 Olympic torch.

Next week, Ben Parkinson will walk 300 metres with the Olympic torch in Doncaster; a task most of us would deem as rather easy. But for the 27-year-old amputee, it is anything but, as PM's Sima Kotecha has been finding out.

In 2006, the Lance Bombardier from the 7th Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, was caught in a landmine explosion in Helmand Province, in Afghanistan. He suffered 37 injuries as a result, including the loss of both his legs.

Through the use of high-tech prosthetics, he is now able to walk. I watched him gradually get up from his wheel chair, crutches in both hands, eyes starring directly in front of him.

He begins to walk towards me; his artificial limbs allow him to move with ease and comfort, he tells me. His speech is difficult to understand, because of the severe brain injuries he sustained in the attack.

His mother, Diane Dernie, is concerned about Ben's future once he leaves the forces. Currently the military pays for the prosthetics which experts say are state of the art, and cost tens of thousands of pounds.

But the NHS takes over the care of veterans who are amputees, and there has been criticism over the quality of the prosthetics which they provide, which are currently a lot cheaper.


Diane said: "We're always worried that when you're back within the care of the NHS, it's going to be more about the money that's available rather than what the need actually is.

"And the circumstance will arrive where the NHS has to say, well this is what's available and this is the best we can do, and that may not necessarily be what's required."

Vince Manley is a former Royal Marine Commando. In 2005, he lost both his legs in a bomb explosion in Baghdad. He used NHS prosthetics for a while, and found them painful at times.

He said: "Obviously it's all budget-orientated so it's very basic components and the sockets themselves were bog standard carbon fibre. I didn't know any different at the time, so I just thought everything was going to be uncomfortable for the rest of my life."

Image caption Ben Parkinson prosthetic limbs are paid for by the military.

The government has already acknowledged the problem, and has committed to spending up to £15m over three years on prosthetics for those injured in places like Afghanistan but no longer serving.

It says the money, which comes from the Department of Health's contingency fund, will go towards setting up specialist units, and improving the standard of NHS prosthetics so that they are more in line with those available through private clinics.

Robert Shepherd is a physiotherapist, and specialises in prosthetics. He has worked in the NHS, but now runs a private clinic in Leicester, where he helps patients like Ben find the most suitable artificial limbs.

Limb upgrade promise

He said that that sum of money is simply not enough. "If you consider the prosthetics, normally the components have a warrantee of two to three years; it means they need to be replaced every three years.

"And if you take that for the number of people that are going to turn up saying I want my higher spec leg, they have to be replaced over and over again, that money is just not going to add up."

I put that claim to Dr Andrew Murrison, the MP for South West Wiltshire. He led the government review into NHS prosthetics after concerns from military charities that they are not good enough.

"I think people always do say it's not enough," he told me. "I'm confident... that this is an adequate response to the challenges and we will provide the sort of service that people have been asking for."

Image caption Andrew Murrison MP: Prosthetics funding is "an adequate response to the challenges"

Since the war started in 2001, 248 service personnel have lost limbs in Afghanistan, according to official figures. But this cash is not just for them, it is for those who have lost limbs in other conflicts too. The government is calling it an interim solution while it figures out what to do in the long term.

Soldiers who lose limbs in combat do receive compensation. In Ben's case, he was awarded more than £500,000. But his mother says this amount does not cover a lifetime's worth of prosthetics, and the additional expenses of living with a disability.

The Department of Health told PM that "servicemen and women who have been injured in the service of their country deserve the best possible care from the NHS, and we are committed to making this available.

"Since 2 April this year, any veteran who has lost a limb as a result of their time in the armed forces can upgrade their prosthetic limbs to the same standard as those received by serving soldiers. We are also working towards the creation of specialist limb centres for veterans in the NHS, and these will be in place by March 2013."

It is too early to say whether the funding has made a difference. But some veterans fear their replacement limbs will be forgotten or downgraded by future budget cuts as the Afghan war slips into history.

Listen to Sima's report on Radio 4's PM programme at 1700 BST on Wednesday.