South Central Ambulance Service spends £10m on private providers

Thousands of 999 calls in the south of England are delegated to private firms costing the NHS millions of pounds a year, the BBC has learned.

South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) spent over £10m for private companies to attend call outs in 2010-11.

The figures are higher than any other ambulance trust in the country.

Christopher Ringwood from Patient Voice said he was "horrified" by the figures but an SCAS spokesman said economic conditions were to blame.

Ian Ferguson, the trust's chief operations officer, said: "The cost of living is higher in the south so it's easier in some ways to recruit in the north of England.

"Our staff are highly skilled so it takes a long time to train them.

"We recruited 150 extra staff last year, we plan to recruit 150 extra staff next year, and that will enable us to reduce our dependence on private providers."

'Public money'

About one in eight emergencies in the south was attended by private providers in 2010-11 amounting to 47,398 of the 390,100 call outs across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hampshire.

Mr Ringwood from Patient Voice said: "They say the next thing the Brits have to religion is the NHS and that applies to the ambulance service.

"It's like dialling 999 and asking for the fire brigade - you wouldn't send a private fire engine would you?

"It can't be an efficient use of public money."

In June NHS figures revealed that SCAS had the best response times in England.

The data showed that 77.5% of life-threatening calls were responded to within eight minutes during 2010-11.

Mr Ferguson added that the trust had also increased the number of clinicians in call centres.

"It enables us to concentrate our ambulances on critically-ill patients," he said.

Mr Ringwood agreed that patients had to come first.

He said: "If the welfare of the patient can't be guaranteed other than by having this private intervention then I have to say it's a good thing but I actually hate the concept."

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