PERFORMANCE: More than 8,000 emergency calls were downgraded by East of England Ambulance Service Trust over two months.

An internal report released by the trust found that 8,324 999 calls made by patients between 18 December 2013 and 22 February 2014 had been downgraded to a lower priority response by the call centre manager without formal approval. The changes contravened official Department of Health guidance. At least 57 patients died during this period.

The report found that 21 types of calls were downgraded. This meant that patients either faced longer response times for an ambulance or being diverted to clinical telephone triage instead of an ambulance.

“This resulted in a lower acuity level of response being afforded to potentially life threatening situations,” the report said. However, no evidence of harm to patients was found.

Trust executives were alerted to the changes during a staff meeting in February last year. The policy was immediately dropped and it was reported as a serious incident. An investigation was launched into the changes.

Trust chief executive Anthony Marsh said: “I was told about these changes during a meeting with staff on the 19 February 2014 and immediately launched an investigation and ordered the reversal of the changes.

“Whilst these changes should not have been made in the way that they were, no harm was caused to patients and it had no impact on performance reporting.

“Since I took over we now have much stronger governance arrangements in place, alongside an experienced executive and non-executive team.”

The trust has since introduced a new approval process for code set changes and of a new policy for code set management. Managers have also received additional training.

Speaking at the House of Commons yesterday, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called for a full independent investigation into the incident.

He said: “Withholding ambulances from terminally ill people is the most cruel form of rationing imaginable.

“Will [the health secretary] today order a full independent investigation into how this happened and into every death or adverse incident?”