Ambulance services across England are looking overseas to fill gaps in their paramedic workforce as trusts grapple with vacancy rates as high as 25 per cent, HSJ research has found.

The number of paramedics recruited from overseas has already rocketed to 183 in the financial year to date, compared with just one in 2013-14, according to information provided by ambulance trusts.

Nearly all of this increase is attributable to London Ambulance Service, which told HSJ more than one in five of its full time equivalent paramedic posts are vacant. The trust said it had recruited 175 paramedics from Australia, who started joining it this month.

Ambulance

Vehicles responding to potentially life threatening calls regularly go out with a paramedic on them

Six of the country’s 10 ambulance trusts said they had plans to recruit overseas in future, with countries targeted including Australia, Poland and Ireland.

Three services – in the East of England, South Central and the North East – reported paramedic vacancy rates of 24-25 per cent. Across England, services reported that 1,382 of 15,887 posts were vacant – a rate of 9 per cent.

Representatives of the paramedic workforce have warned of increasing strain caused by staffing shortages, while heavier workloads, relatively stagnant salaries and new career opportunities were prompting staff to leave.

One senior figure in the NHS ambulance sector also told HSJ that UK trained paramedics were responding to “aggressive” recruitment campaigns from Abu Dhabi.

Richard Webber, national spokesman for the College of Paramedics and a senior NHS paramedic, said: “It’s now become a regular occurrence for vehicles responding to potentially life threatening calls to be going out without a paramedic on them.”

paramedic shortage

He added that “there are a lot more opportunities for paramedics outside the ambulance service than there were previously” such as the NHS 111 service, which was “actively recruiting paramedics”.

Capita, the outsourcing company responsible for assessing claimants for personal independence payments, had also “been actively recruiting” paramedics as disability assessors, he added. A Capita spokeswoman said the company has 50 paramedics working as assessors.

Health Education England, the national body tasked with commissioning training places, has pledged to increase the number of paramedic training places by 87 per cent over the next two years.

Its latest workforce plan said trusts’ forecasts for paramedics were one of the “few areas where there is a consistent indication of additional demand being required beyond 2015”.

The planned increase in places is intended to create 1,902 extra full time equivalent paramedics over the next five years, but is not expected to produce qualified paramedics until 2016-17.

Alan Lofthouse, ambulance service lead for the union Unison, claimed “the ambulance services themselves can’t take any more students on placement… so we’ve really reached a crisis point”.

Anthony Marsh, chair of the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives and chief executive of two ambulance trusts, said: “There are not enough paramedic training places at universities. I don’t think any service has recruited enough students to meet their needs.”

Several trusts are looking to train their own paramedics to deal with the shortages. A London Ambulance Service spokeswoman said: “We know that pressure and volume of work is one of the reasons staff are leaving our service.”

The trust aims to recruit up to 1,000 frontline staff next year, she added.