Ambulance services in the South West are at the centre of a major political row today after it emerged the region has the worst response times in the country.
Latest figures show only 68 per cent of ambulances reached the scene of the most serious category A cases within eight minutes in October. This was the lowest out of all 11 ambulance trusts and compares to 74.6 per cent nationally for the most time-critical calls. But the data from NHS England revealing that only 717 of the 1,049 critical 999 calls in the region met the target sparked a major row because it came days after a Freedom of Information request by the Labour Party showed that waiting times have been increasing for the last two years.
As Labour lined up to attack the latest figures, the Conservatives released a letter from Ken Wenman, chief executive of South Western Ambulance Service, attacking shadow health secretary Andy Burnham. Yesterday's statistics show that South Western Ambulance Trust was one of four trusts out of 11 – the others being North West, East Midlands and East of England – which failed to hit the target of 75 per cent for the most urgent critical calls.
The trust was also one of six which missed the target for the proportion of Category A (Red 2), serious but less time-critical, calls resulting in an emergency response arriving within eight minutes.
The figures sparked a major row and Mr Burnham said: "The Government's failure to face up to their A&E crisis is having a serious knock-on effect on ambulance services – 999 response times are getting worse.
"More and more calls are being attended by police cars and taxis on David Cameron's watch. What clearer sign could there be of an NHS not safe in Tory hands? Patients deserve better."
Last week Labour pointed out that South West ambulance bosses spent £102,483 on taxis last year and that the average response time has increased nationally by 30 seconds because of queues at A&E departments.
A spokeswoman for the Conservatives said: "We know ambulance services are under pressure, with more people needing more healthcare as our population ages.
"But Labour's scaremongering is disingenuous; thousands more people are being seen within the ambulance target time since the election."
They released the letter from Mr Wenman which said the information "has been misinterpreted and misreported in order to present a grossly inaccurate picture for the purposes of apparent political gain".
In his letter he said: "taxis are only used to transport patients in a very small minority of cases where it is clinically safe and appropriate to do so.
"Taxis would never be used to transport patients in emergency or life-threatening situations."
A trust spokesman said: "Like all ambulance trusts around the country, the service is facing an ongoing increase in demand for its services meaning more calls to respond to and increasing numbers of patients requiring care.
"An additional challenge for the south west region is that it is predominantly rural, with many isolated communities. This area of the country also has the highest percentage of elderly people who are more likely to access our services, especially in the run up to and during winter.
"The Trust would like to make an assurance that the provision of high quality emergency and urgent care services remains our top priority."
Dame Barbara Hakin, chief operating officer at NHS England, said: "We know that ambulance services are under pressure.
"NHS England has allocated an extra £14 million to clinical commissioning groups that commission ambulance services on behalf of their local area, so they can secure extra staff and equipment to ensure a good standard of service over the winter months."
But unions are still critical of using taxis to plug gaps and say members fear a serious injury could be missed.
Unison branch secretary Jo Fowles believes part of the increased demand is down to the new 111 service by Harmoni and is collecting complaints of inappropriate 999 calls from paramedics.
She said: "Everybody is aware of the issues but because there is the political will to move the NHS into the private sector nobody is doing anything about it."